As saints go, possibly only St. Valentine is more thoroughly integrated into American pop culture than St. Patrick.
Though their stories are rote to the faithful, they are perhaps less well known to the public at large. St. Valentine, whose feast day we celebrated on Feb. 14 with the exchange of cards and gifts among couples, was a priest (though he is one of those saints who is difficult to thoroughly authenticate) who went to his death for marrying Christian couples in violation of Roman law. Our observance of St. Valentine Day as a celebration of couple hood, however lighthearted, kind of makes sense.
St. Patrick is remembered for having been a slave in Ireland who, upon being freed and returned to his native Great Britain, decided to return to Ireland to convert the Hibernians to Christianity, so taken was he by their culture. According to legend, he drove the snakes from the emerald isle, though this is generally believed to have been a metaphor for his conversion of the Irish to Christianity and away from what would be referred to for generations as "the old religion." The old religion in early Christendom was also a euphemism for the worship of false gods or even the devil himself, whose first appearance in the Bible is as a snake in the Garden.
While there were probably never snakes in Ireland — it is pretty far north for most reptiles — the idea of conversion and driving out what snakes represent in the Bible go hand in hand.
Strangely, from this story we get the modern American popular culture tradition of drinking beer. The oddity of it comes into sharper focus when it's known that the tradition in Ireland on St. Patrick Day generally involves going to church.
No matter. In the U.S., St. Patrick Day is more of a celebration of Irish heritage and culture as it manifests itself on this side of the Atlantic. Like many immigrant groups, the Irish who moved to America came for the opportunities and to get away from a bad situation. Remembering the happy traditions of the old world is fun, and what better a day to do it than on the feast day of your nation's patron saint?
It is unfortunate that other ethnic holidays aren't as widely observed, though there is a good deal of Italian pride expressed on Columbus Day, and Oktoberfest is observed by many of German heritage.
There is an unsavory side to any of these festive observances, being that the drink part of eat, drink and be merry sometimes gets out of hand. This is a problem on many levels, but especially when a reveler who has had too much gets behind the wheel of a car. As has become something of a law enforcement custom on St. Patrick Day, New Year's Eve, Labor Day and Memorial Day, police are promising to be out in force Saturday — and Friday — to tackle the problem of lifting too many pints before turning a key. If you find yourself in the situation having celebrated a bit too much, do yourself, and everyone around you, a favor and don't drive.
Or just keep in mind that a saint's feast day isn't like a holiday associated with a figure of earthly accomplishment. We celebrate on Washington's birthday with department store sales, but the saints are remembered on the days when they leave this life to meet their maker. If it's too early for your feast day, don't drink and drive and you'll improve your chances of celebrating St. Patrick come next year.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun