Saturday, March 17, 2012

Shamrocks and Snakes

Today people all over the world are celebrating St. Patrick's Day. It is the one holiday when everyone wants to be Irish. I'm pretty lucky - I am Irish. Well, okay, not full blooded born in Ireland Irish, but my Irish ancestors immigrated here in the early 1800s and stayed. Where I'm from, the annual parade claims nearly 500,000 spectators. So the day has been kind of a big deal for my family since I was a wee lass.

So who was this St. Patrick? For starters, the real St. Patrick wasn't even Irish. He was born in Britian around A.D. 390 to an aristocratic Christian family with a townhouse, a country villa, and plenty of slaves. He wasn't even really Christian. At 16 he was kidnapped and sent overseas to tend sheep as a slave in the chilly, mountainous countryside of Ireland for seven years. Somewhere during that time, he had a conversion experience.

As the story goes, a voice came to Patrick in his dreams, telling him to escape. He found passage on a pirate ship back to Britain, where he was reunited with his family. Then that same voice told him to go back to Ireland. He gets ordained as a priest and goes back and spends the rest of his life trying to convert the Irish to Christianity.

He died on March 17, 461, and was largely forgotten. Slowly, mythology grew around Patrick, and centuries later he was honored as the patron saint of Ireland.

And herein lies much debate.

One of the biggest stories about Patrick involves how he drove the snakes out of Ireland. The problem with this story is there aren't, and pretty much never were, snakes in Ireland. The waters around the island are too cold to allow a snake to migrate there. So, if there weren't any snakes, how did this story come about?

The snake is associated as a pagan symbol, and it is believed that the snakes referred to in the St. Patrick mythos are not meant in the literal sense, but refer to pagans, especially druids. Druids were said to carry staffs with snakes carved on them. So when they say St. Patrick drove out all the snakes, what they are really saying is he drove out paganism and replaced it with Christianity.

Another widely known tale is how Patrick explained the trinity using a shamrock. The shamrock had been seen as sacred in the pre-Christian days in Ireland. Due to its green color and overall shape, many viewed it as representing rebirth and eternal life. Three was a sacred number in the pagan religion. This is more indicative of his taking something already known and associated with a spiritual belief and incorporating it into his own. A common practice at the time.

Since around the ninth or 10th century, people in Ireland have been observing the Roman Catholic feast day of St. Patrick on March 17. Interestingly, however, the first parade held to honor St. Patrick's Day took place not in Ireland but in the United States. On March 17, 1762, Irish soldiers serving in the English military marched through New York City. Along with their music, the parade helped the soldiers reconnect with their Irish roots, as well as with fellow Irishmen serving in the English army. The parades became a way to honor the saint but also to confirm ethnic identity and to create bonds of solidarity.

In 1962 the show of solidarity took a spectacular turn in Chicago when the city decided to dye a portion of the Chicago River green.

In Savannah, Georgia, every fountain within the city limits is dyed green in a ceremony that dates back more than 100 years.

The day is associated not just with parades, but with lots and lots of beer. On any given day 5.5 million pints of Guinness, the famous Irish stout brand, are consumed around the world. But on St. Patrick's Day, that number more than doubles to 13 million pints.

While you are likely to see a lot of *wearin' o' the green* on this day, many modern pagans view the day not as a day of celebration, but of mourning. They choose instead to wear the traditional mourning color of black, or red for the blood that was shed. Many have renamed the day All Snakes Day instead, and wear snake symbols.

In my family, it is a day to play. We often try to catch the annual parade, even if it is largely just a means to advertise local businesses. And mostly, I always try to whip up something Irish-y to eat. Some suggestions include Tempeh with Cabbage and Potatoes or perhaps an Emerald Isle Pot Pie. Whatever you do, make it your own kind of celebration, and have fun with it!

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