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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

The Self Shelf: Why you should wear green on St. Patrick’s Day

Published: March 18, 2011
Section: Opinions, Top Stories

Graphic by Ariel Wittenberg/The Hoot

On the 19th St. Patricks Day of my life, I put on a green shirt as always. When I was younger, I used to pair the inevitable green shirt with green pants as well. One memorable year, I wore a green vest with a green shirt and green pants along with a green hat. With my red hair, I only needed black dress shoes and a general sense of creepy over-enthusiasm to be the leprechaun from those annoying Lucky Charms commercials (“They’re all after me ethnic stereotype-I mean Lucky Charms!”). The reason I wear green is first and foremost that I’m Irish and St. Patrick’s Day is a celebration of my culture. Yet in recent years, I’ve wondered who exactly this St. Patrick was and why the celebration of the day has spread so far beyond the Irish. As it turns out, St. Patrick’s Day is actually the culmination of 1,600 years of Irish culture.

The story of St. Patrick’s day naturally has to start with who exactly St. Patrick was. As it turns out, he was a British Christian missionary born in England in the late 4th century. That’s right; the patron saint of Ireland is British. Anyway, at the ripe old age of sixteen, he was kidnapped by Irish pirates. Ireland, at this time, was a mainly Pagan country (Christianity had fostered some inroads into the local population but had not gotten far). Patrick, while in captivity, had a vision telling him first and foremost to escape but also to come back and bring Christianity to Ireland.

Armed with religious zeal and certain key allies, the future Saint Patrick would spend the rest of his life setting up the foundation for Christianity in Ireland. As it turns out, it was quite lucky for Christendom that he did so because the Irish monks would essentially save Christianity during the Dark Ages by transcribing all of the holy books before they were lost and sending monks on incredibly dangerous missions to spread Christianity throughout the rest of Europe.

Without the Irish monks, Christianity may never have become as dominant in Europe as it later would. Regardless of your views on the normative advantage or disadvantage of the church’s presence, no one can deny the importance of St. Patrick in a historical sense.

As a reward for his work on behalf of Christianity, St. Patrick was later canonized by the church and thus got his own feast day. During the 9th and 10th centuries, the feast day began to be celebrated by the Irish as a cultural as well as religious holiday. By the 16th and 17th centuries, St. Patrick’s Day was celebrated as a celebration of Irish heritage as well as a religious celebration.

As for why St. Patrick’s Day became so caught up with the idea of alcohol, I cannot find any conclusive evidence pointing in any valid direction. I can only imagine that it might be because St. Patrick’s feast day was and is in the middle of lent and people were looking for an excuse to eat, drink, and be merry for a day before returning to fasting.

Yet St. Patrick’s Day appears to me at least to be more important in a secular fashion. It is a celebration of Irish culture and Irish heritage. One may wonder how this could possibly become so popular and widespread (for example, South Korea celebrates St. Patrick’s Day). The answer is the proliferation of the Irish people. In the United States particularly, the Irish have had a long history of struggle and triumph. I don’t think I can put it any better than Frank Costello from “The Departed” when he points out that Irish people rose from the lower working class to the presidency in the span of around sixty years.

As a result of their increasing standing in society, cities began holding events like parades on St. Patrick’s Day. Eventually, everyone else in society realized that the Irish seemed to be having a lot of fun partying on St. Patrick’s Day and decided to get in on the action. Thus the expression “Everyone’s a little bit Irish on St. Patrick’s Day,” was born. And come on, I defy you to give me a reason not to join in on the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day or at least wear green.

At this point in my life, I have only heard two. The first is that it encourages drinking and debauchery and thus is bad for the Irish and society in general. Unfortunately, this is true of nearly every major cultural holiday. What’s more American than sipping a cold beer and throwing some hot dogs on the grill on the fourth of July? The same can be said of a barbeque on a Labor Day Weekend. And while I’m not sure what everyone does on Columbus Day, I’m pretty sure it’s not necessarily reading up on Italian cultural tendencies. On cultural holidays, we recognize the culture at hand and we appreciate them in our society but we also tend to celebrate it with, well, a celebration of some sort. St. Patrick’s Day is in keeping with this fine holiday tradition. If the Irish just happen to have some more fun celebrating their culture than the rest, so be it.

The second reason not to join in is a mix between hating the Irish/fun and the idea that St. Patrick was some kind of genocidal maniac. Having grown up in an Irish and Portuguese family, I can attest to the presence of the hating on the Irish phenomenon.

The Portuguese side of my family would always try to anger the Irish side in any way possible. I have no idea why the two sides dislike each other-I can only attest to the fact that they do. Yet if you hate the Irish, you probably hate fun too so perhaps St. Patrick’s Day isn’t for you anyway.

In terms of St. Patrick’s moral cleanliness, this is also something I cannot truly attest to. Historical accounts are quite murky. While it does appear that St. Patrick led a powerful attempt to convert Ireland to Christianity, records do not show any kind of whole scale genocide of Pagans. That’s not to say there wasn’t pressure to convert but rather that charges of massacres are not verified.

In any case, St. Patrick’s Day is more about a celebration of Irish culture than of St. Patrick. Honestly, having been raised as a member of the Jewish faith, I have no real attachment to the feast day anyway. All I know is that St. Patrick’s Day is basically Irish pride day and I’m proud to partake of it.