Friday, March 18, 2011

leprechaun invasion (or, we're all Irish now)

This post started as a rant over at our family blog (where we post cute kid pictures and stories for the grandparents), but acquired some (minimal) anthropological content, so I decided to post it here. Sorry for the digression from my normal topics.

Bunny is in preschool this year, so I've been exposed to the public school party-line for the first time since my own childhood. I was struck by this year's St. Patrick's day celebration, or, as every preschooler I've met this year calls it, "Leprechaun Day". Last month, the kids were making hearts and valentines and lists of people they love. This month, Bunny brought home a string of leprechauns and shamrocks. When asked if she knew who St. Patrick was, she hazarded, "a leprechaun?"

In case you, too, were taught to celebrate "Leprechaun Day" in school, the original Feast of St. Patrick is in honor of the apostle to the Irish, a 5th century bishop who is credited with converting most of the island and kicking out the pagans. He is associated with the shamrock, which he used as a symbol to teach about the trinity (the three in one, the one in three). There are no leprechauns in his hagiography, however. In Ireland, St. Patrick is celebrated as one of the two patron saints of the country, and his feast day is largely a religious holiday.

When large numbers of Irish came to the United States (along with many of my ancestors), St. Patrick's feast day was transformed into an expression of Irish (and Irish-American) culture and pride. Parades, "Oh, Danny Boy", the wearing of the green, and other manifestations of the St. Patrick's day that we know and love are Irish-American inventions. They stem from wide-spread anger among Irish-Americans about being forced from their country of origin, and at the treatment they received here. While many Irish-Americans assimilated quickly, and others were haunted by the horrors of the past (think A Long Day's Journey Into Night, and, well, just about anything else Eugene O'Neill ever wrote), many Irish-Americans held tight to their ethnic and religious pride.

I grew up in a time and place where St. Patrick's day mattered. People knew and cared about whether they should wear green or orange on St. Patrick's day. But the patterns of celebration have changed, both with the generations and with geography. When I was in college, St. Patrick's day still had a strong current of Irish-Catholic pride (not surprising, given the region had a strong Irish-Catholic population), but was opening to others. I remember a particular St. Patrick's day that I spent with my Irish-Catholic friends, and our good friend from Hawaii, of 100% Japanese descent. (We declared her to be Hawai'irish for the day.)*

From what I see now, St. Patrick's day has been, not so much secularized as popularized, or perhaps democratized. My daughter is being taught about "Leprechaun Day", but the words "Patrick" and "Ireland" are not mentioned at all. What has caused the change? Fewer people are Catholic these days, and more American Catholics are Latino or from another ethnic background that has no particular tie to St. Patrick. Furthermore, my experience with teaching Cultural Anthropology suggests most college-age white Americans have little attachment to Old World ethnic identities. Most of my students self-report their ethnicity as "American", suggesting most Euro-Americans are no longer tied to Irish, Polish, Italian, etc., classifications. We're not located in one of the mixed mega-cities of the West, but rather in an area where there still are ethnically-focused neighborhoods and towns, so I suspect this trend is widespread in the U.S.

But if Irish ethnic identification and Catholic religious observance are both falling, then why is St. Patrick's day bigger than ever? One factor is obvious: if Valentine's day is a "Hallmark holiday", then St. Patrick's day is a "Budweiser holiday". With fewer associations to only one religious and ethnic group, it can be marketed as a major drinking opportunity for people throughout the country. Market forces can drive major alcohol manufacturers to push the holiday, but why should elementary schools jump on that bandwagon?

The schools are using St. Patrick's day (and other secularized religious holidays, like St. Valentine's Day and Halloween) in place of the official religious celebrations that most countries celebrate. I teach my cultural anthropology students that religious celebrations help to forge group identity and create social cohesion by creating a shared symbolism (shamrocks, valentine's hearts, etc.), as well as shared mythology and stories (all the damn leprechaun books). Religious celebrations create a liturgical calendar to help a society organize and make meaning of time. Since we are, technically, a nation that separated church and state**, we cannot celebrate "real" religious holidays, so our children are given these secularized, democratized versions instead. I find it a fascination example of the ways religious observation can be changed to fit the needs of the society.

*As a total aside: That was the one and only time I ever saw a John Wayne movie, (The Quiet Man, in honor of the day.) I have since wondered if the movie was really as funny as I remember it, or if it was just our state of inebriation.

**I recognize that all of these "secularized" holidays are from the Christian tradition. Even with the overtly Christian spiritual elements removed, I'm not sure how "non-religious" it is celebrate saints' days and high feasts of the Catholic church, often in ways that hark back to the European pagan antecedents of these holidays. That just goes to show how impossible it is to treat religion as a completely separate social institution.

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