Today, in case you're living under a rock, is St. Patrick's Day. But if I were to stop you in the middle of your drunken revelry and actually ask you why you were wearing a plastic green bowler hat and a "Kiss Me I'm Irish" shirt (even though you're Italian and Polish) what would you tell me? Probably something about snakes or religious freedom, or perhaps you might continue drinking and simply ignore the question. The truth is the way we celebrate on March 17th has become a convoluted mess of what was once a rather low-key Catholic observance of a Saint's life and contribution to Ireland.
While much about St. Patrick's life isn't well known, we do know he wasn't born in Ireland, but probably somewhere in what is modern day England or Wales during the 5th century, when it was still part of the Roman Empire. He was kidnapped by Irish pirates when he was a teenager, and enslaved for six years before escaping, returning home and becoming a cleric. Part of the legend of St. Patrick was that he brought Christianity to Ireland. While he did return to Ireland to do missionary work, and was eventually made bishop of Armagh, there is evidence that Christianity pre-dated his arrival, so he can't really take credit for that. What about the "driving the snakes from Ireland" story? That would have been hard, considering the island nation never had them in the first place, and it's more likely that story was an allegory about "driving out" pagan ideology.
So how did this once solemn day of prayer become the hedonistic bacchanalia we know today? The direction changed when the Irish began to emigrate in large numbers to the United States. Here, the holiday traditionally reserved for acknowledging the life of Ireland's patron saint became more of a day about Irish pride, celebrated with parades and parties. Like a game of telephone, over time the holiday became less and less about St. Patrick himself, and more about the celebration surrounding the day. Even the staple dish, corned beef and cabbage, finds its roots in New York City where Irish immigrants bought beef from their Jewish neighbors as opposed to the more traditional pork. While it's incorrect to say St. Patrick's Day is strictly an American tradition, it isn't too far off the mark to say that the way we celebrate is.
So if you're celebrating today, and raising a pint of Guinness while proclaiming "Erin Go Bragh" just stop for a moment and think about the holiday's roots. By all means, have a good time, but be respectful of the heritage rather than simply using it as an excuse to get black-out drunk in the middle of the day. However you choose to celebrate, though, don't drink green beer. Just...don't. Please.
Happy St. Paddy's Day!
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