Why We Celebrate St. Patrick's Day
Like most ethnic holidays in the US, St. Patrick's Day has become diluted and commercialized to the point where the true meaning has become second place. I think you could say this about just about every holiday on the calendar from New Years to Christmas but it seems the holidays that are supposed to celebrate the sacrifices of those that came before have fallen into another silly reason to get drunk. I think a lot of this comes down to the generation or generations that were most effected are no longer with us but it doesn't help that there seems to be a quick buck to be made also.
I have to admit that I never gave much thought to it. St Pat's was just another night to get drunk and it might have been something to do with the fact that I didn't feel a connection to any ethnic group including the Irish. You could blame this disconnection to being adopted and not knowing my genic connection to the past and the fact that I didn't know for sure that I was from Gaulic desent until I was in my early 30s. It came in the form of an old letter that my parents had received at the time of my adoption. There was a brief description of my mother and father, my mother's last name and the fact that I was Welch, Irish and Scott. It kind of fulfilled something that I had already know and a connection to Irish culture that I had had for sometime and being the person that I am, I began to throw myself into the history and culture of the American Irish.
My first memory of St. Patrick's Day was elementary school, we made paper clovers with no thought or interest in what the day represented other than it was the one day a year when you could get away with pinching anyone not wearing green. It may have been my first experience of forced conformity in my life and when you think about is not only silly but kind of evil to force on a six year old. When I did ask once what the day was all about, I was handed a book that had Leprechaun and the only real mention I remember being told was that St Patrick was the man that chased all the snakes out of Ireland. When I think back it really wasn't much different than the treatment of Valentine's day, President's day or the fairy tales of Thanksgiving. Maybe they thought it was too much for our undeveloped minds to understand and like most adults they wanted to shield us from the centuries of oppression at the hands of the English, the hunger strikes that were happen at the time. the Troubles, object poverty of the Irish Homeland and the prejudicial treatment that a majority of the Irish received when they fist came to this country.
St Patrick's day was a low holiday in my childhood, no candy like Easter, Halloween, and Christmas. It was more like Veterans Day but instead of flags and discussion on the sacrifices of those that fought bravely for the freedom we enjoyed, you got bullied based on your choice in fashion and had to make some silly craft object. I guess Columbus day was about the same except it was more exciting with all the talk about sailing and Discovery.
The day all but fell off my teenage radar and it really didn't come into my life until I discovered the pains and joys of binge drinking in my 20s. Yet another day that presented another reason to drink too much. By then I had a bit of an education about the issues surround modern Ireland and the lovely UK and a little more insight into the Irish American experience. However the main focus was the drinking and drink I did until I concluded that it was one of the national amateur drunk nights to be avoided like New Years Eve. Being Irish or celebrating the Irish culture had nothing to do with it. It was just another holiday for bars and beer companies to sell their products. It's easy to become jaded about just about every holiday because it's the nature of American culture to bury the meaning of something under the product.
Making St Patrick's day less about being Irish includes everyone. Granted it is in the nature of the Irish Culture to include but some how in the commercialization of the day, the meaning and intent was completely lost. Maybe it was becoming more aware of my Irishness or being more educated to what the day meant that caused me to become increasingly offended by people but it seems that the whole holiday has become a celebration of all the Irish stereotypes that it was fighting against. Why wouldn't I when you consider that it has become a day when any fool can dress up in a silly Leprechaun outfit and get drunk out of their mind. What a way to celebrate an ethnic group that has contributed so much to this country and the world.
Now it is not alone in this treatment. Take Cinco de Mayo. Which is a celebration that like St. Patrick's day has took on a different meaning outside of its country of origin to be less about Mexico's unlikely victory over Naploleon's France and more about celebrating Freedom, Independence and Hispanic Culture. Up until recently it was only really celebrated within the Mexican-American Community but thanks to a few beer companies, it has been transformed into another amateur night of drinking in America. A couple of years ago I decided that decided to go for a pint at a bar that was near my house. I remember thinking that it was rather crowded for a week night and ask the bar tender why it was packed. She responded that it was Cinco de Mayo. I looked around the room of 20 something college students without a Hispanic face in the bunch, noting the beads and various other cheap beer company trinkets. There was also a few boys wearing a kind of Pouncho Villa outfits and had to wonder if anyone in the room had a clue what the day was about. At one point, a girl came up to me and asked if I would buy her a shot. When I asked what the reason for the shot might be, she screamed out "Cinco de Mayo" followed by a kind of yowling yelp sound that must originated in some low budget Hollywood Mexican Bandit film. I asked her if she knew what Cinco de Mayo was and what the importance of the 5 of May was? She seemed rather confused, stumbled a bit and repeated her drunken call which was echoed by a few other drunks in the room.
Granted they were college kids and maybe they weren't educated to the meaning and more than likely had only first heard of the holiday from ads but they had to have just a little bit of a clue as to how offensive it must be. The thing is they all seemed to have no clue that what they were doing could be the least offensive and it got me thinking about St. Pat's and other ethnic holidays. Some clear choices would be Columbus Day and Martin Luther King Jr day. Think of it liquor companies could hand out cheap plastic Mario Brothers style mustaches, hats shaped like Maccaroon and everyone could wear red checkered shirts. Not only would it be fun to dress up but everyone could speak broken English with an Italian accent. This seems like a prefect fit for Lemoncello or maybe Gallo wine. For MLK day, plastic pin hats and cups, maybe walking sticks and black face kits. Once again it would be fun to dress up and think of the fun of drunk people talking in urbanics. I think Tanqueray gin, Hennessy and the Malt Liquor companies could jump all over this. Within a couple of years no one would even think twice that this wasn't normal activity and you would have 2 more amateur drink nights a year to celebrate binge drinking and you get to dress up. Not to leave anyone out you could include countless other ethnic groups.
Now that I've gotten that off my chest, let's talk a little about what St. Patrick's day is truly about. He was captured by Irish Raiders and brought to Ireland as a slave. After entering the Church, he returned to Ireland and basically is credited to bring Christianity to Ireland. It is said that he died on March 17, 553 at the age of 120. He is one of the reasons that the Shamrock is represented in most St Patrick day celebrations because he used it in his teaching to represent the holy trinity. The whole snake bit, is thought to be more lore than fact because there is no evidence that there has ever been snakes in Ireland. For over a thousand years the date of his death has been celebrated in Ireland. The date was marked by going to church in the morning and then feasting the rest of the day. Since the holiday falls within lent, the restrictions on meat and other foods are lifted for one day.
Where it's meaning expanded was in America when Irish Solders in the English Militay were granted permission to march in a parade to celebrate St Patrick and their Irish Heritage on March 17, 1762. Now that might not seem very important unless you consider that Ireland was subject to English rule and considered to be second class citizens in their own country. The English government had by this time outlawed, banned and oppressed anything that could be considered part of Irish culture. To allow this parade and to have official sanction to do openly express pride in your Irish heritage was unheard of and made the parade very important and was key in the development of Irish organizations like the Friendly sons of St Patrick and Irish Aid Societies. Now it would it's hard to understand what it was like to be Irish and new to America but they were the first large ethnic group to migrate to the US that was easily defined by their cultural differences. Without these organizations it is doubtful that the Irish would have created the power base that was needed to move from the discriminated ethnic group to one of political power and wealth and it all started with the 1762 parade.
I know it is hard in these modern times to consider racism based not only your physical looks but where you came from, your culture and religion but the Irish were considered sub-human and worthless and often targeted with the same amount of hate as the African Americans and Asian Americans. Considered to be backward, stupid, alcoholics and brutes only good for manual labor. It would take generations and the centering of political power, even as corrupt as it was, to gain entrance to the American Dream and all it promised. This continues to be part of the experience of all that come to seek a better life. However this was during a time when there were no government programs or protection. The Irish paved the way for those that came behind them, improve their condition with each generation until reaching the White House.
So that is what it's about in America, it's about toasting to those that came before and gave up everything to make a better life for the next generation. It's about the preservation of a culture against one of the strongest powers in Europe. It's about celebrating the immigrate, who lives their homeland to start a new life with nothing. It's about being able to stand up and in a clear and load voice saying what you are, where your people came from and what your proud of without fear of oppression or punishment. It's about the call of freedom and independence. And above all it's about all those forgotten people that gave up everything to make a better life for those that came after them. They aren't all Irish and maybe that's the real reason that everyone is included in the celebration. Maybe in a way being Irish has been about surviving against the powers at be and not only living to tell about it but flourish despite them. That's the Irish that is in our shared history and in each of our souls and it has nothing to do with green plastic hats, green beer, green jello shots or beads.