St. Patrick’s Day

by Jay Jamison

An old friend of mine once proclaimed, “I only drink on high holy days.” No matter what day it happened to be, he followed this remark by asking, rhetorically, “Say, isn’t today the feast of St. Swithun?” Next came the “pshht” of the tab on a can of beer.

Looking back about a millennium or so, when the lives of many people in Europe and elsewhere, revolved around the Medieval Church calendar, the surprising fact emerges that just about any day on the calendar was a church holiday or saint’s day. The history of England website lists 45 feast days and other days of commemoration.

If we add to the official English feast days to those of Ireland, and the European continent, every day of the year has a least a couple of saints and martyrs to be commemorated. By the time the average Medieval peasant sobered up, after the celebration of one saint, another holiday was likely to offer a reason to pull the cork on one more round of revelry. According to the website, even February 29, leap day of leap year, is a special day of reflection. On February 29, the old church calendar recognizes Oswald, bishop of Worcester and York. Why Oswald didn’t make the cut like the others who pop up at least once a year, and instead is only celebrated every four years, is not entirely clear. However, every four years you can justify indulging in a dram of the good stuff, by raising a flagon to bishop Oswald. In short, every day of every year is accounted for as a saint’s day, a remembrance day, along with other observances.

In America, we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day mostly because of his connection to Ireland. Many have said that everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day. But St. Patrick must share March 17 with several others on the ancient Church calendar, Gertrude, virgin, abbess (of Nivelle); Joseph (of Arimathea); and the Martyrs of Alexandria, also get a nod on March 17.

In America ,St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated with huge parades in just about every major city with a large Irish population. In Chicago, they even dye the Chicago River green. In Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day is not the huge bacchanal that it has become on this side of the pond, probably because they don’t have to “show” that they’re Irish in quite the way we do over here.

The saintly part of Patrick’s day is largely overlooked in America. St. Patrick’s Day is hardly seen in the U. S. as an occasion for fasting and prayer. So, what makes Patrick so special that even many devout Catholics often overlook the fact that the celebrations usually fall within the 40 days of Lent (see fasting and prayer, above)? He is recognized as a Christian missionary to Ireland, later a bishop in Ireland, and known as the “Apostle of Ireland.” Apparently, he was never officially canonized as a saint, since the Church didn’t do those things in the Fifth Century, but he is recognized as a saint in the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican and Lutheran traditions, which is as good a set of reasons I can think of to dye the Chicago River green. In America, we aren’t that good at commemorations, but we are really good at celebrations. So, on St. Patrick’s Day, we do what we do best — we celebrate. So, here’s to St. Patrick — “pshht.”

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