Friday, March 14, 2008

Demystifying St. Paddy

Some much-needed demystification (demythification?) of the annual senseless beerfest that is St. Patrick's Day (not that I'm knocking mass consumption of beer) comes to us from Andy Crouch (h/t Shakesville):
So that time of year is upon us once again, the time when imbibing throngs pack into bars, throw on giant, foam hats, and clink mugs of green beer in celebration of, well, something. Perhaps a greater perversion than even the American fascination with and celebration of Cinco de Mayo, St. Patrick’s Day is an opportunity for wild, unabashed revelry among the masses and for big breweries to haul in the cash.


Now I don’t begrudge anyone a day or two a year to let loose but this particular holiday, along with Cinco de Mayo, has always felt pretty forced to me, especially in Boston. Quick, tell me three things you know about the man known as Naomh Pádraig. Admit it, the only thing you could come up with was the snake thing. And when you think of Cinco de Mayo, you think of the day that Mexicans won their freedom. You and millions upon millions of others would be wrong on both counts. But why let a little history, or legend, get in the way of a few pints, right?
Speaking as something of a faux-Irishman myself, I've always had a troubled relationship with St. Patrick's Day. It's not just most Americans' atrocious taste in beer...I think it's the rather rote manner in which we celebrate so many of our holidays. While I'm certainly looking forward to many of the planned events, the history of the day is left rather vague.

So I decided to do an extremely minimal amount of research (since I'm skipping work today anyway) (h/t Wikipedia):
Saint Patrick (Latin: Patricius, Irish: Naomh Pádraig) was a Christian missionary and is the patron saint of Ireland along with Brigid of Kildare and Columba. Patrick was born in Roman Britain. When he was about sixteen he was captured by Irish raiders and taken as a slave to Ireland, where he lived for six years before escaping and returning to his family. He entered the church, as his father and grandfather had before him, becoming a deacon and a bishop. He later returned to Ireland as a missionary, working in the north and west of the island, but little is known about the places where he actually worked and no link can be made with Patrick and any church. By the eighth century he had become the patron saint of Ireland.
Okay, that's all well and good, but what about all the cool stuff he's supposed to have done?
Pious legend credits Patrick with banishing snakes from the island, though post-glacial Ireland never actually had snakes; one suggestion is that snakes referred to the serpent symbolism of the Druids of that time and place, as shown for instance on coins minted in Gaul (see Carnutes), or that it could have referred to beliefs such as Pelagianism, symbolized as “serpents”.
Bit of a buzzkill, but legend usually has an element of metaphor to it. According to the Smithsonian, Ireland has never had snakes:
It's true, aside from zoos and pets, there are no snakes on the emerald isle. In fact, there never were any snakes in Ireland. This state of affairs probably has more to do with the vagaries of geography than any neat tricks performed by St. Patty.


[S]nakes are found in deserts, grasslands, forests, mountains, and even oceans virtually everywhere around the world. Everywhere except Ireland, New Zealand, Iceland, Greenland, and Antarctica, that is.

One thing these few snake-less parts of the world have in common is that they are surrounded by water. New Zealand, for instance, split off from Australia and Asia before snakes ever evolved. So far, no serpent has successfully migrated across the open ocean to a new terrestrial home. As the world's oceans have risen and fallen over the millennia, land bridges have come and gone between Ireland, other parts of Great Britain, and the European mainland, allowing animals and early humans to cross. However, any snake that may have slithered it's [sic] way to Ireland would have turned into a popsicle when the ice ages hit.
And so how did his day become such a big deal?
Irish colonists brought Saint Patrick's Day to what is now the United States of America. The first civic and public celebration of Saint Patrick's Day in the 13 colonies took place in Boston, Massachusetts in 1737. During this first celebration The Charitable Irish Society of Boston organized what was the first Saint Patrick's Day Parade in the colonies on 17 March 1737. The first celebration of Saint Patrick's Day in New York City was held at the Crown and Thistle Tavern in 1756, and New York's first Saint Patrick's Day Parade was held on 17 March 1762 by Irish soldiers in the British Army. In 1780, General George Washington, who commanded soldiers of Irish descent in the Continental Army, allowed his troops a holiday on 17 March. This event became known as The St. Patrick's Day Encampment of 1780. Today, Saint Patrick's Day is widely celebrated in America by Irish and non-Irish alike. Americans celebrate the holiday by wearing green clothing. Many people, regardless of ethnic background, wear green-coloured clothing and items. Traditionally, those who are caught not wearing green are pinched. Alcohol is the centre of many American celebrations.
I guess that's all we really need to know. Just grab a Smithwicks and chill.


Todd Stadler said...

I agree that overindulging is at the center of most American holidays, though I believe alcohol is really only involved in those deemed foreign or from "other" cultures. Thus, Cinco de Mayo, St. Patrick's, Oktoberfest (admittedly, not a huge change from the original), and, I'd argue, Mardi Gras, which not only has a French name and comes from a French area, but also is rather Catholic, an "other" culture in largely Protestant America.

The holidays we consider our own (whether we borrowed them or not) tend to involve eating, usually too much. Thanksgiving, Christmas, Halloween, the two summer holidays (Memorial Day and Labor Day). You know.

SomeGoSoftly said...

I was absolutely about to blog the same thing. There is no point to this holiday and it bothers me. I like me beer normal colored. I don't wear green unless the Celtics are playing, and main point: I'm not Irish. Nor are most of the people that take the day off to get housed. Silly holiday.