The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

March 15, 2013

This is not your four-great grandpa’s St. Patrick’s Day

By David Christy, News Editor
Enid News and Eagle

— Anyone remember when they first heard about St. Patrick’s Day? Well, I do.

In grade school, you learned about all the holidays, from George Washington’s birthday to Valentine’s Day to Flag Day.

On St. Patrick’s Day, you had to wear something green to school, or else someone was going to give you a pinch.

That usually didn’t entail some nice-looking, smiling, pony-tailed girl coming up to you and giving you a playful pinch.

It always seemed to be some big kid, two grades above you, that held down some poor unfortunate on the recess playground and pinched him until he cried “Uncle!”

On Sunday, as has been the custom in the United States since March 17, 1762, a parade will be held somewhere on these shores to commemorate the special Irish observance.

On that pre-Revolutionary War day, Irish soldiers serving in English military units marched through New York City. Playing music, the soldiers were said to be reconnecting with their Irish roots.

Today, St. Patrick’s Day parades, braced with green beer and bedecked with dancing leprechauns and shamrocks, are held from New York to Boston, from Chicago to Savannah, Ga.

But, the real celebration is your great-great-great-great-grandfather’s St. Patrick’s Day. OK, then maybe my four-great.

The day in Ireland, where it originated, is the saint’s religious feast day and anniversary of the death of St. Patrick in the fifth century.

The Irish have been observing the day for over 1,000 years.

Falling during the Christian season of Lent, Irish families have by tradition attended church in the morning and celebrated in the afternoon.

During the observance, Lenten prohibitions against eating meat were waived and people on the Emerald Isle would dance, drink and feast on a traditional meal of Irish bacon and cabbage — two of the few foods that sprang plentiful from the rocky, craggy soil of Ireland.

Now the Irish are well-known tellers of stories — the term “full of blarney” one of the phrases brought to these shores by hoards of Irish immigrants.

I remember growing up hearing that Eire’s patron saint banished all the snakes from Ireland, which made him a hero to me, since I hated snakes.

Yet, it is a made-up story, the product of hundreds of years of exaggerated storytelling, which is just part of Irish tradition.

In fact, history has scant information on St. Patrick, and his life remains somewhat a mystery.

He was born in Roman-controlled Britain to wealthy parents near the end of the fourth century, and is believed to have died March 17, 460 A.D.

His father was thought to be a Christian deacon, but it’s also thought his family was not particularly religious — this being a time in which Christianity still was in its formative years.

At age 16, St. Patrick is said to have been taken prisoner by a group of Irish raiders, and taken back to Ireland for six years of captivity.

While there, he worked as a shepherd outdoors and away from people.

Lonely and afraid, he turned to religion and became a devout Christian in a pagan land.

It is at this juncture his hazy past turned him to dream of converting the Irish to Christianity.

While St. Patrick didn’t introduce Christianity to Ireland, after walking 200 miles to the Irish coast to escape captivity, he had a vision to return as a missionary.

After becoming a priest, he was sent to the island to minister to Christians and begin converting the Irish to Christian beliefs.

As has been the case many times across history past, St. Patrick chose to add ritual into his lessons on Christianity, rather than attempting to cleanse people’s traditional beliefs.

Since most Irish at that time in history were nature-based pagans, St. Patrick used bonfires to celebrate Easter and the death of Christ, since the Irish were used to honoring their gods with fire.

Legend says he superimposed the Irish sun symbol onto the Christian cross to form what today is known as the Celtic cross — a powerful symbol in Ireland and the meshing of Christianity with the old pagan ways.

And, that was not at all dissimilar with how Christianity melded into the celebration of Christmas, which has many pagan roots incorporated into it in celebration and feasting, which slowly and methodically moved Christianity into the everyday lives of formerly pagan peoples.

And the rest — as you wear green this Sunday — is history.

For me — an Irishman — I’m still waiting to be pinched by that pretty, pony-tailed girl.



Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle. Go to his column blog at http://enid news.com/historicallyspeaking