Monday, March 16, 2009

Leprechans With Botox: The History Of Saint Patrick's Day In America

(Thanks to the Charlottesville Daily Progress for publishing my article)

It wasn't your fault. You had no idea traditional Irish music consisted of synth-guitars and double-bass drum kits until you went to the local "pub" and found out through a series of electrified power rifts. "The Verdant Braes Of Skreen," apparently, is traditionally screamed into the microphone while wearing a pair of leather chaps - dyed green of course. You also didn't know that the best way to honor America's legacy of Irish ancestry was to drink as much green beer as possible while howling incoherent phrases with a bunch of fat guys. Arm in arm, frothing, stumbling - it all starts to make sense. Eventually, it seems reasonable that not only did leprechauns exist, but they did indeed have PR agents. Yes, "Shamrock Shakes" are deeply historical, and yes, Saint Patrick would have wanted it that way...if you could remember who he was.

'Wait a minute,' you think to yourself after Jean-Pierre from accounting shows up in a green beret, 'what is this St. Patrick's Day thing anyway, and why do we celebrate it?' Well, here are a few highlights to win that next 3:00 am bar-bet:

- Saint Patrick was born Maewyn Succat in Britain in 389 A.D. His father Calpornius was a deacon and his grandfather Potitus was a priest (note: do not mention British ancestry in actual Irish pub)

- At the age of 16, Patrick was captured by pirates and sold into slavery for six years. Being sold into slavery was generally considered "a real bummer", but luckily Patrick had the gift of vision. He "saw" the ship that directed him to his escape, leading him to France where he became a priest (for God's Sake, do not mention the "French thing")

- Much later in life, Patrick returned to Ireland as a missionary with the vision to convert the Irish to Christianity. This may be seen as the "ultimate mid-life crisis," although it should be noted that red sports-carriages weren't involved. Through preaching, working with royal families, and setting up monasteries, Patrick was extremely successful in his mission.

- Patrick's missionary work upset many Celtic Druids, and he was arrested several times during his tenure. To make matters worse, he was constantly sued by animal-rights groups for his "anti-snake" theories.

- Patrick died on March 17, 461. Upon learning this, many Americans are amazed at the coincidence that he "actually died on ST. Patrick's Day". By the seventh century Patrick had become the patron saint of Ireland and recognized as the founder of Irish Christianity. The Druids, of course, referred to him as "Mr. Big-Party-Pooper".

- The Irish celebrated St. Patrick's Day as a religious holiday, although it became increasingly secular and proclaimed an Irish public holiday by the Bank Holiday Act in 1903. In many parts of Ireland, it is still considered largely a religious holiday.

- Irish Immigrants brought the traditions of St. Patrick's day to the 13 colonies as early as the 18th century. The first public celebration took place in Boston in 1737, with the tradition spreading to New York by 1756. These early celebrations were mostly upper-class, although belching loudly and rude scratching were still encouraged.

- The first New York City St. Patrick's Day Parade took place in 1762 by Irish troops in the British Army.

- In 1780, George Washington allowed his troops of Irish descent to take holiday on March 17, becoming known as the "St. Patrick Day Encampment." Some say the "British-fop-joke" record set that night is unbeaten to this day.

- In 1827 restrictions on Irish emigration were lifted by the British government - by 1835 over 30,000 Irish had come to the United States. Politicians across the country held hands and formed an actual shark-circle as they swarmed in on the new voting block. St. Patrick's Day become a mandatory endorsement for any politician hoping to win office.

- With the large number of uneducated and impoverished immigrants, "Irish Aid Societies" formed in major cities, each one holding their own celebration with music, dancing, or parades. Eventually, many of these societies merged their festivities, giving root to the larger celebrations seen today.

- During the 20th century, St. Patrick's Day took on an increasingly commercialized tone in the US. As celebrations spread, various industries seized upon the incredible marketing potential, altering their goods to reflect support of the unofficial holiday. Green Beer, Shamrock Shacks, Leprechaun Toilet-Paper - everything became fair game. Eventually, St. Patrick's Day came to be celebrated by everyone, regardless of nationality. This is generally considered a good thing, giving people an excuse to kiss multiple co-workers.

- In the 1970's St. Patrick's Day took on an activist tone, with various charity fund-raising and attention to the troubles in Ireland. In the 1980's gay-rights organizations protested the parade in New York, run by the "Ancient order of Hibernians." The Hibernians refused to let them march, giving a hand-circle with two snaps to the right.

- In 1998 Bill Clinton invited political parties of the Irish conflict to Washington for a peace initiative, resulting in the Good Friday Accord which called for sharing political power in Northern Ireland. Clinton gave FOUR snaps to the right followed by a full-on head-bob.

Today, America's St. Patrick's Day celebration is one of the largest celebrations in the world. With Irish and non-Irish alike united in the common cause of drinking cheap beer and thinking of excuses to miss work the next day, St. Patrick's Day has taken on a uniquely American meaning. For better or worse, we have taken it, loaded it into Bubba's shotgun, and blown it far across our amber waves of grain. And that is what we do. Were else can you eat green tofu and not throw up half an hour later?

In the end, despite it's shameless commercialism and 20-foot styrofoam clovers, St. Patrick's Day has somehow managed to unite us. Go to the bar on the 17th, take a look around. We are all there, all Americans, laughing together, telling stories, getting along for at least one brief moment.

Yes, St. Patrick may be turning over in his grave, but I like to think that he's doing so with just a hint of a smile.