March 17, 2005 - Reading time: 4 minutes
Every year on St. Patrick's day I have to wonder how a Catholic holiday can come to America and end up as an excuse for binge drinking. And more importantly, why this particular one, for several reasons.
First, a bit on St. Patrick: Irish? Nope. He was actually born in Scotland, and lived most of his life in Britain or France. But that's a minor point, especially given the fact that the Irish tend to hold him in high regard.
Fine. That one I can overlook, but there are better reasons to choose a different saint if you're looking to cut loose and have a bit of fun:
- St. Patrick is credited with converting the Pagan Irish to Catholicism, but actually many Irish were already Christian; they had just drifted from Catholicism to an apparently unacceptable form of Christianity known as Pelagianism, which (in a nutshell) says that St. Augustine was being a bit pessimistic in his view that humanity is sinful by nature and must rely totally upon grace for salvation. Those heretical Pelagians thought that people were essentially good, and didn't need to go broke supporting the Catholic church to get to heaven. So St. Patrick really saved the Irish from their happiness (and their money) by converting them back to a more strict flavor of Catholicism. Given that cutting loose and having a good time is likely to get you stoned as a Catholic, the holiday as we know it doesn't really make a lot of sense.
- St. Patrick died in the year 493; the holiday wasn't first publicly celebrated in America until 1737. Why? Why indeed: just what does making the Irish unhappy have to do with Americans? I mean there's not even much sport in that. Perhaps it's because many of the unhappy Irish eventually came here?
- If you're looking for an excuse to drink, there are better saints to choose from, too. There are three Christian saints that are generally listed as patron saints of brewing: Saint Augustine of Hippo (who was known for wild living and heavy drinking before he converted, and heavy drinking but less fun afterwords), Saint Luke the Evangelist (who as a physician noted that the beer of the time was healthier than the water of the time; Saint Arnold of Metz reached the same conclusion about 500 years later, making him another good choice), and Saint Nicholas of Myra, aka Santa Claus (the red face and beer gut would make him perfect, except that we already have a day associated with him, and doubling up holidays is no fun). Other saints got in to beer as well; Saint Columban miraculously created beer for some Germans as a missionary; Saint Bright changed water into beer to feed lepers (she also brewed beer the old fashioned way each Easter, to supply the churches in the neighborhood); Saint Mungo, the patron saint of Glasgow, Scotland, established a religious brotherhood there in the year 540, and the brothers there brewed to supply other groups (brewing beer is still considered the oldest industry in Glasgow). Where does St. Patrick fit in? According to Senchus Mor, the book of the ancient laws of Ireland, he had a priest in his household that was a brewer. Come on ... I mean there are even other Irish saints, like Saint Brigid (who miraculously transformed her dirty bathwater into beer so that visiting clerics would have something to drink), to choose from. So on this angle, I really think you could do better.
I mean I'm not trying to spoil anyone's fun, but can't we come up with our own holidays? We could even keep the "green" theme if we scoot the holiday up a few days, to the first day of spring. There's no reason to make a mockery out of other cultures' holidays; we should really be able to come up with our own.