Soon, another year will have passed away and the first unofficial rite of spring will be upon us. I speak of St. Patrick’s Day. The St. Patrick’s Day Parade has a pull as strong as gravity for the residents and spectators in any city. Kansas City. It has the usual high school marching bands and Knights of Columbus elders with swords and plumed hats (chapeaux might express the headgear better). Folks with green hair toss beads from decorated golf carts. Green coffee leads to green beer which eventually leads to Technicolor vomit and acts of less than dignified passions.
In the U.S., St. Patrick’s Day has become a symbol of many things; the joy of excess being a primary one. But what does St. Patrick’s Day mean in in different places? In Boston it harkens back to an idealized sense of Irish identity, but what does it mean in Dublin? Or Boise? Or Kinshasa? In LA or Omaha, it’s easy to find proof that everybody’s Irish on St. Patrick’s Day. More than any other ethnic holiday in the United States, St. Patrick’s Day has crossover appeal, at least for now. It’s so mainstream, in fact, that its original meaning (as a rite of Roman Catholic, Irish-American solidarity) has been eclipsed by a broader message. St. Patrick’s Day is reinvented with every generation, being adapted to meet the needs of a wide range of populations.
In the US, St. Patrick’s Day has become a sort of all-purpose celebration of American diversity. Irish-Americans are a success story, and St. Patrick’s Day is a story of American possibility and upward social mobility. When you have Mexican kids in Brooklyn celebrating it, they are celebrating the possibilities of America and ethnic advancement. When you have Spanish-language advertising incorporating the shamrock, it is a form of bricolage that has little to do with the Saints. When you have kids of Spanish, Cuban, Greek, German, Scottish, French and Irish ancestry, as with my own, dawning the green and announcing their Irish affiliation, it is not a matter of ethnic identity so much as it is a wonderfully boisterous day to let down their hair after a bleak and dreary winter. What’s really being celebrated in the US is America, not Ireland. It took generations for the Irish to really become assimilated, and it will take generations for other groups.
Outside the US, similar thoughts no doubt apply. Even in the land of the holiday’s origin, where the demographic structure and national identity are in rapid transition, the holiday has taken on a new meaning. It is a celebration of overcoming adversity and the beauty of life.
St. Patrick’s Day is known as a “thick” holiday, meaning it is rich with cultural meaning and symbolism. An ethnic festival can easily change into something that’s not quite so easily identified with an ethnic group. Understanding the fluid nature of culture and the ability people have to adapt symbols to meet their changing needs is key to understanding the motivations behind behavior.
How authentic is it all? Is there any authenticity in “authenticity”? And does it even matter? From an anthropological perspective, authenticity once was tied to a cultural construct and typically represented an idealized version of the past. Even if that past was relatively brief in the grand scheme of history, even if it was tied to a single individual around with an idealized perception had been built, it was still part of a symbolic system that pointed to key elements of character and meaning. Authenticity placed the contemporary group, in this case the parade goer, into a symbolic lineage with the past, giving it legitimacy and defining a structure for what is and is not “real.” In other words, “authenticity” is a kind of invented tradition and a series of symbolic markers that people believe represent how things should be. But this doesn’t mean St. Patrick’s Day is somehow false. It is simply transformed to take on new meaning and new relevance.
While there are those that will dismiss St. Patrick’s Day with a cynical comment about the lack of Irishness or the excess of consumption, there is something beautiful about it. Going beyond Irish heritage, it welcomes into the spectacle a host of inner-city students, immigrants, etc. It becomes less a symbol about nationality/ethnicity and more a symbol of community engagement and a precursor to that other expression of the awakening of spring, Easter. There is a great deal of beauty in the shared experience of the immigrant nation and the celebration of emergence from poverty.
St. Patrick’s has lost much of its religious flavor (as has Easter), but it has gained a unifying quality. As Nietzsche said, “God is dead.” God isn’t really dead, but his traditional form is being secularized and is evolving with cultural/civilizational forms out there. Sure the forms exist, but with a few exceptions these forms have as much relevancy to the spirit that once animated them as the New York St. Patrick’s Day parade has to the spirit St. Patrick. They may be, as Jack Whelan said, “dead forms animated by the undead energies of nostalgia, jingoism, and other passions.”