Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Saint Patrick's Day

Happy St. Patty's Day!  Pass the beer, would ya?

I think all major holidays and celebrations have a twisty-curvy bit inside them if you hold them up to the light long enough.  Saint Patrick's Day is an example that doesn't require all that much light, to be honest, being the weird sorta-religious, sorta-nationalistic, sorta-besotted global party that it is.

But hey, when else can ya drink the beer that's green, eh?

Edna Barth, author of Shamrocks, Harps, and Shillelaghs: The Story of the St. Patrick's Day Symbols, puts it pretty well: "For most Irish-Americans, this holiday is partly religious and partly festive.  St. Patrick's Day church services are followed by parades and parties, Irish music, songs, and dances.  To other Americans, the festive side is the one that is known the best.  Cheerfully noisy, greener than spring itself, the Irish holiday on March 17th is a welcome harbinger of the coming season."

Ahh, greener than spring itself -- a great way to describe the festivities, isn't it?

Growing up, even before I was old enough to enjoy the imbibing, I always loved St. Patty's Day for the greenery, the pinching, the horribad fake Irish accents, and so on.  Turning 21 (well, ish) just made it all that much better. And then, I learned that there are people who resent the holiday.  What...?

Yeah, there's more to it.  In fact, there's a long history of more to it.

Saint Patrick, as most people know, became famous for driving all the snakes out of Ireland.  Yay!  Who wants snakes, anyway, right?  Though, hold on a sec -- if you're talking about literal snakes, you have to agree that some are useful to have around.  They keep rodent populations under control, for one thing.  From a non-religious-metaphoric, non-ophidiophobic (fear of snakes) standpoint, then, why would the guy who de-snaked an island be a hero?

They weren't literal snakes, though.  They couldn't have been.  People who have studied fossil records have concluded that there were never snakes in Ireland.  The explanation I've read seems legit; way back when, those islands north of continental Europe were way too cold for cold-blooded reptiles.  As they warmed and the seas rose, a few snake species were able to migrate over to jolly old England herself, but none made it all the way to the Emerald Isle.  So, no snakes in Ireland for Saint Patrick to remove.

So if Saint Patrick didn't drive out the snakes, what did he drive "into the sea"?

Druids, the answer goes.  His charter mission from the Catholic church, after all, was to convert the pagans to Christianity.  That was what he was sent to do.  Basically, it was his job, and who better to do it than the bishop who, according to what I've read, actually grew up, up there? 

I can only imagine a similar thing today, with the performance statement saying something like, "Congrats and good job on exceeding goal on pagan-conversion rate.  Based on metrics, your annual performance raise will be 4.2%.  Advise increasing 401K participation in order to take advantage of new increase to matching funds."


So, pagans.  Druids, in other words.  The pagans in Ireland called their pagan priests druids (well, the Irish dialect version of the word, but you get the idea), and it was those folks who had to convert or leave in order for Saint Patrick to succeed in his mission.

So why snakes as a metaphor?  Well, the story is that the druids used a serpent as their primary symbol, and so "driving the snakes to the sea" is a less-metaphoric-than-usual metaphor for ridding the nation of druids.  Right?

Right, except that I'm struck by one question, that being the case.  Why would pagans, a group whose "religion" involves a close attachment to the world around them, choose as their symbol an animal that doesn't exist where they are?  It's kinda like how the University of Southern Mississippi chose "Golden Eagles" as their mascot when there isn't an eagle within hundreds of miles of them.  Granted, USM has the Internet to look up cool stuff about golden eagles, while the Irish pagans had -- um....  Yeah.  So what -- how -- when....?

Frankly, I don't get it.  Except, I have to point out, the poor snake really has gotten short shrift in Christian literature, hasn't it? 

Ah, well.  Anyway, that's the religious side of the holiday.  Then there's the green side.  Which is weird, too, because apparently Saint Patty's color was blue.  Oops.  But as tensions rose over the past couple of centuries (like they were ever low) between Catholics and Protestants, Irish and non-Irish, and so on, it's said that a great nationalistic wave swept over the holiday.  Green is the Irish color, and Saint Patrick's Day is the Irish holiday, and so therefore the holiday's color is green, begorrah!

All right, so green it is.  I like green.  But what about all the drinking?  Not that I don't like drinking -- far from it -- but why that on a sorta-religious mostly-nationalistic holiday?  Well, keep in mind that March 17th happens to fall, no matter when the moon cycle actually phases, somewhere deep within the vast expanse of Lent.  To folks like me who aren't Catholic, Lent generally means "hey, time to pretend to give something up for 40 days, and oh, look at all the purple cloth."  Many Catholics, however, view Lent in a much more serious light.  It's their 40 days to fast, to pray, to abstain, to contemplate -- in short, to really get serious about the whole religious thing. 


Hey, every deeply serious process needs a moment or two of levity, right?  This one is particularly important, too, since it celebrates what can be claimed as a major accomplishment for the Catholic church.  Thus, many Catholics lift the Lenten rules just a tad--a wee bit, laddie!  Many bishops, from what this non-Catholic writer has heard, even make the lifting of rules official policy, thus creating what is effectively another Fat Tuesday right smack in the middle of the thing. 

Hey, not casting stones here.  It's a celebration.  Humans need celebration.  Ancient pagans recognized that, creating as they did the four solar and four mid-season holidays spaced out so nicely through the year.  The Catholic church agreed, doing much the same and even adopting many of the same time frames. 

No, no aspersion intended.  Quite the opposite, actually.  I love Saint Patty's Day, myself.

It's just -- interesting.  Ain't it?

Enjoy the celebration!  (just consume your green beer safely, and no driving afterward, okay?)