Happy St. Patrick’s Day everyone. Enjoy your pint of Guinness, or Murphy’s, or Beamish, or whatever. In Ireland, they’ll be sitting down to a traditional family dinner, which while it may include a dry Irish stout, is not all about the drinking. But here in the United States, the supposed melting pot, we take everybody’s holidays and run them through the cultural meat grinder. When they come out on the other end they’re invariably bigger, glossier, brighter and most people probably think more fun, if your idea of fun is to drink yourself silly every time you have an extra day off. But whatever solemn purpose or commemoration or event is being celebrated it is all but completely erased and what remains is fun, fun, fun. Now I like fun as much as the next guy. I’m a curmudgeon, certainly, but I still like to have fun. But we’re talking about days set aside so that we don’t forget our heritage, the often selfless sacrifices people have made on our behalf or the celebration of religious traditions. And how do we treat those days, almost without exception? We drink. And not just a toast. We drink to excess. We drink until the streets run pink or brown or yellow or whatever with vomit. Of course, we do this to our own holidays, too. Unfortunately, I see this as fairly recent trend. I remember when Memorial Day wasn’t just an excuse to have a picnic or barbecue and drink. I remember when Halloween was just for children and not the biggest keg sales weekend of the year (which it actually is now).
Now I enjoy a party, a picnic, a barbecue as much as the next guy. Any excuse to get together with friends and family is a welcome event. That’s not what I object to. My objection is twofold. First there’s the general over-commercialization of holidays. Second, there’s the way in which the big breweries, mass market imports along with the wine and spirits industries have seized upon each and every holiday as a way to sell more booze. And, of course, I’m not anti-alcohol. I hope that goes without saying but just in case, feel free to read more of what I’ve written before and you should quickly realize that I don’t like the neo-prohibitionists as much as they no doubt dislike me.
As to the first point, the over-commercialization of holidays, I’m going to take it for granted that most people will agree that this has happened. It’s hard to miss that whatever commercial aspects are inherent in a given holiday, they have been wildly exploited and expanded upon. A stroll through the average card shop should be more than enough to drive this home. If not, then how about that stores start decorating for Christmas in October now, sometimes even earlier. Anyway, I don’t want to belabor this point too much because I think most people will accept it and my second point is, I think, more novel.
Before I dive into this further, a little more background is probably in order. I’m also something of a calendar geek and have an almanac blog, too. I started collecting dates about thirty years ago when I picked up a book on mixed drink recipes that had an appendix with a reason to celebrate and have a drink each and every day of the year. That got me thinking and I started keeping a notebook where I’d write down new holidays, famous birthdays and historical events I happened upon. As a result, I may be more sensitive to holidays than the typical person, if such a thing is possible.
Anyway, it seems to me what was once a solemn religious holiday celebrating the patron saint of Ireland on the date he was believed to have died, March 17, 461 C.E., has been perverted into a way to sell more Guinness and all manner of other Irish doo-dads. Several years ago, Guinness gave away an actual pub in Ireland to a winner in America. They did this for a few years running. What happened to the pub and the pub owners once they were out of the spotlight wasn’t always pretty and I suspect that’s why they stopped. Then there was the yearly attempts to break the world’s record — from the Guinness Book of World Records, naturally — for the largest number of people simultaneously toasting, which was accomplished with some elaborate coordination. I’m not even sure what they’re doing these days, since the parent company Diageo has had them off in bizarre directions which have not done the beer itself any favors, and I’ve pretty much given up on them as a brewery. They still seem to enjoy a good reputation, even among beer geeks. Of course, the stuff available here is brewed in Canada. That’s done so they can still put “imported” on the label. It’s a common trick. Foster’s does the same thing, as do a few other larger import beers. There are around 19 or 20 different Guinness beers worldwide, of course, and at least four different ones are sold here. The beer in the widget can, widget bottle (an abomination in my opinion), regular bottle and in kegs are not the same beer; I mean they’re not even the same recipe. I’m not saying there’s anything necessarily wrong with that. They’re fairly up front about it though still, I doubt most people are actually aware of it. So when somebody says they like Guinness, I have to wonder which one? I think it says a lot about peoples’ palates that so few realize they’re drinking completely different beers when they order a can or bottle of Guinness.
To be fair, St. Patrick’s Day isn’t the most egregious of these holidays by a long shot. At least dry Irish stout, which is what Guinness and most other Irish-made stouts are, is actually originally from Ireland. Many other non-Irish beer also advertise themselves for St. Patrick’s Day in about as shameless a fashion as one could imagine. Last weekend, while in Philadelphia, I witnessed part of their annual parade for St. Patrick’s Day. There were the requisite social organizations marching in their green colors, bands, floats for Irish bars and bagpipers. Oddly, one float was blasting the song 500 Miles by the Proclaimers. It’s a catchy little tune, but the band is Scottish, not Irish. To me, that’s a perfect illustration of how little we all know about our shared heritages. Nobody else seemed to notice they were celebrating Irish culture with a song from Scotland, least of all the people on the float who chose the music.
For most of its history, the holiday was a relatively quiet affair in Ireland, a time for family, church and reflection. There were shamrocks and other greenery, but it was mostly for the tourists who flocked to Dublin and other parts of the Emerald Isle.
Sadly, this may no longer be true in Ireland. In 1996, the government of Ireland began what has become a five-day celebration in Dublin known as the Official St. Patrick’s Festival, which this year began on the 13th and concludes today. The stated goal of the festival is the following.
- Offer a national festival that ranks amongst all of the greatest celebration in the world
- Create energy and excitement throughout Ireland via innovation, creativity, grassroots involvement, and marketing activity
- Provide the opportunity and motivation for people of Irish descent (and those who sometimes wish they were Irish) to attend and join in the imaginative and expressive celebrations
- Project, internationally, an accurate image of Ireland as a creative, professional and sophisticated country with wide appeal, as we approach the new Millennium.
That’s certainly a modern approach to raising revenues for the country through tourism but it feels a bit like a sell-out. Given that the Irish have been shedding their own blood over religion for centuries, it seems odd to me that they’d so cavalierly commercialize their national holiday. But perhaps the momentum was too great and they decided to go with it rather than fight a losing battle. America has a way of ruining almost everything it touches, remaking it our own image of bigger, glitzier and with an eye toward profit, always profit. But when profit is the prime motivator, the meaning of the traditions that binds a people become lost. No matter how rich we might become, nothing can rival the social connections that make us a society rather then a group of self-serving individuals who care nothing for their fellow man.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Enjoy it with friends and family.