Friday, March 17, 2006

Green enough

On its St. Patrick's Day page, Yahoo describes the holiday as "Originally a day to honor the patron saint of Ireland, March 17 has become a worldwide celebration of all things Irish."

Okay, so what day do we celebrate all things Costa Rican? Or Turkish? Or Rwandan? I don't have any problem with the Irish celebrating the birthday of their patron saint, but I'm baffled by the pervasiveness of St. Patrick's Day. If you toured elementary-school classrooms today anywhere in the U.S., would you find many that weren't decorated with shamrocks and leprechauns? All greeting-card shops have been shimmering for weeks with the vernal glow of green foil. I did't notice—was Oprah wearing a shamrock brooch today?

It makes sense to me that St. Patrick's Day parades became part of the American landscape after the discrimination Irish immigrants experienced in the mid-nineteenth century (although Wikipedia argues that the prevalence of NINA signs—"no Irish need apply"—at that time is mostly an urban legend). The parades functioned as Irish Pride parades, like Gay Pride parades function now, to establish solidarity and improve the self-image of an underpriveleged minority. But I think the Irish are doing okay now in the U.S. Are parades still needed?

I have to assume that the branding of St. Patrick's Day has been so successful in the U.S. because beer is involved. Similarly, the branding of Christmas has been so successful because of the gift-giving custom and its impact on the economy. The branding of Valentine's Day has been so successful because chocolate is involved. The Wikipedia article on St. Valentine, however, was an eye-opener for me. Valentine's Day was removed from the Catholic calendar in 1969?? Nobody told me! I'm amazed that we still celebrate it. The story of Valentine, or Valentinus, was dismissed as almost entirely legend nearly four decades ago. But you'd never know that from the Valentine's Day displays in the stores.

Of course we could blame retailers for creating hype to increase sales. But that doesn't explain everything. If retailers in Santa Monica all got together and started hyping St. Monica's Day on August 27 because August needs a holiday, would the tradition catch on and spread throughout the Western world? Probably not. Why don't we celebrate St. Agnes' Eve on January 20? She's the patron saint of chastity, gardeners, girls, engaged couples, rape victims and virgins, and "folk custom called for [young girls] to practice rituals on Saint Agnes' Eve (20th-21st January) with a view to discovering their future husbands." Retailers could come up with a decorating theme involving lambs and wool scarves and mace sprayers and diamond rings, and Keats' "The Eve of St. Agnes" could be set to music, if it hasn't been already, and played in stores the week leading up to the holiday. Would it become a mainstream holiday? Probably not. A holiday has to resonate with people in order for them to respond to retailers' hype. For some reason, Sts. Valentine's and Patrick's Days do and Sts. Monica's and Agnes' Days don't.

It seems innocent enough to decorate with shamrocks and leprechauns, doesn't it? It's cute, the kids like it, where's the harm in a green milkshake? The green thing celebrates the welcome approach of spring. A lot of us like Celtic music, at least in small doses. Okay, but is there equal time dedicated to celebrating Costa Rican, Turkish and Rwandan cultures? And is it okay that there isn't? In a multicultural environment, all religious holidays should be observed equally. And that, of course, would result in an overabundance of holidays and the need to change decorations every three or four days. Why not let now-useless religious holidays like St. Patrick's Day just fade into cultural history? Do we have a reason to continue celebrating them other than "[Shrug] It's what we've always done"? Is that a good enough reason to do anything?

Just say no to green beer.

1 comment:

Jonathan Versen said...

and all this time I thought you were Irish. Don't know what to think anymore.