"A man hath no better thing under the sun than to eat, and to drink and to be merry."
Need a daily reason to celebrate? You've come to the right place! Join our resident food lorist and historian, Ian Makay (author of the book, "Food for Thought: Being a Compendium of Culinary Quips, Quotes, Anecdotes, Facts, & Recipes by the Great and Not-So-Great"), as he embarks on a monthly journey through those special days we mark on our calendars."Every Day's a Holiday"!
by Ian Makay
Also see our special St. Patrick's Day page.
Green! A seemingly elusive dream for the winter weary, weather weary folks in the mid-Atlantic and Northeast states. Green means spring and a reprieve from the uncharacteristically severe snow and the cold that's blanketed the region this year. Green is life and renewal, spiritual and physical, marked the world over through a variety of religious holidays and agrarian and environmental celebrations to welcome the annual rebirth of the earth's cornucopia while reminding us that there is a limit to its resources. Yet, of all the days cast in hues of green, perhaps none is most associated with the color than St. Patrick's Day.
As is the case with so many days we celebrate, the ritual and history of St. Patrick's Day is replete with interesting misconceptions, twists, turns, and ironies. The first of these involves the pedigree of Patrick himself, born in Britain of Roman parents as one Magonus Sucatus. Ironic, given the political history of the region, that Ireland's patron saint would be British born. Even more astonishing given that a 16-year-old Magonus was kidnapped by Irish raiders and sold into slavery in Ireland. Escaping his masters after six years, Patrick took up religious training in continental Europe and returned as a bishop to the land of his captivity at the age of 42 in an effort to convert the "pagans." As such, St. Patrick's Day is commemorated in Ireland as a religious feast day. That is to say, the folks of the Emerald Isle do not take their beer and, heaven forbid, color it green (a daunting task given that some 85% of the beer sold in Ireland is Guinness) nor do they march about in parades, except in recent years where local merchants and hotel owners, in places like Galway, have organized such events to placate the tourists.
Where then came the green food ("yuck!"), the shamrocks, the parades, and the general ballyhoo we've come to associate with St. Paddy's? Blame it on that hyphen. A mystical transformation befalls immigrant cultures upon their arrival to the United States, for example, when Irish become Irish-Americans. Perhaps a little bit of Texas invades the souls of all newcomers whereby suddenly everything they associate with their roots becomes somehow larger, louder, bolder. In short, subtlety is not typically considered an American trademark.
Although green would seem a natural symbol for a place nicknamed the Emerald Isle, the association with St. Patrick can also be traced to a legend in which there was a contest, of sorts. Patrick's followers (given the source of the story, this would be the Catholics) were made to stay in a house built of dry brown wood while those who did not follow the saint's teachings (this would be the Protestants) went into a house made of green wood. Both buildings were then set afire. The Protestants in the story became toast, as it were, and Patrick's followers emerged without so much as a hair singed. According to the legend, people have worn green on St. Patrick's day ever since. Of course, since St. Patrick's feast day is celebrated by Anglicans and Lutherans as well as Roman Catholics and other Protestants, one could argue who the actual inhabitants of the green house were.
St. Patrick Day's association with the symbol of the shamrock, aside from being green, stems from the saint's legendary use of the clover's three leaves to explain the Roman Catholic concept of the trinity of God. Since the mid-1800s, St. Patrick's Day came to be the only day during the traditional Christian season of fast and sacrifice, Lent, on which the Irish were allowed to eat and drink as they liked. Hence the practice and expression "to drown the shamrock" has taken on bacchanal proportions.
[The origins of "drowning the shamrock" have also been traced to what has become known as Sheelah's Day, March 18. In the eighteenth century, William Hone reported the celebrations surrounding Sheelah (a mysterious figure who has been identified by variously as the wife, mother, or other relative of St. Patrick) noting that, the people of the day "are not so anxious to determine who 'Sheelah' was, as they are earnest in her celebration....All agree that her immortal memory is to be maintained by potations of whisky." At the end of the day, the faithful would then take their shamrocks and drop them into their respective glasses before downing the contents.]
Parades, while a large part of Irish folklife, have not traditionally been held on St. Patrick's feast day, although there are summertime parades associated with the saint and pilgrimages have been made to St. Patrick's Purgatory on Station Island in Lough Derg since the 13th century. The latter is held by the faithful to be the scene of one of the saint's visions. Pilgrims who come to the site penitent for their sins are believed to receive an indulgence while those who remain faithful are blessed with brief visions of the terrors of hell and the bliss of heaven. Dating back to 1762, New York City boasts the world's largest St. Patrick's Day parade with as many as 125,000 revelers. It is however Boston's parade, which although smaller, is older, dating as far back as 1737. The size and attendance of all the St. Patrick's Day celebrations swelled in the mid-1800s with the massive influx of Irish immigrants during the potato famine. Ironically, one hallmark of these nineteenth century events was the large presence in the parade of temperance groups and other teetotalers pledged to total abstinence.
As it is, St. Patrick's Day celebrations are no longer limited to those Americans of Irish ancestry. On this one day anyone can be Irish and unsightly green bagels, milkshakes, and beer are added to the corned beef and cabbage, Irish soda breads, and other more authentic Celtic fare.
Not to be outdone, Americans of Nordic ancestry took it upon themselves in the 1950s to challenge the March supremacy of the Irish and their saint with the celebration of St. Urho's Day on March 16. Originating in the hinterlands of Minnesota thanks to the efforts of a Finnish-American department store owner and one Professor Sulo Havumaki of Bemidji State University in Minnesota, St. Urho is credited with having saved the Finnish wine-grape harvest threatened by a plague of locusts. Legend has it that St. Urho (whose name translates in English to "hero") raised his staff and bellowed the now famous Finnish phrase, "Grasshopper, grasshopper, go to hell!" thereby ridding Finland of the insect and saving the grapes. Some skeptics doubt the existence of St. Urho, whose holiday is now officially recognized in all 50 states and has even made its way back to Finland. Naysayers point out that there is no Finnish wine-grape crop and that the country is still occupied by grasshoppers. Others remark on the uncanny similarities to the legend of St. Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland (a country which, by the way, probably was never inhabited by snakes). Nevertheless, Finns and would-be Finns celebrate Urho's feast by donning the saint's green and purple colors and drinking grape juice. Others re-enact Urho's miracle by shouting his famous command to the insects, while some rituals even go so far as to arm members of a ceremonial guard with pitchforks and chainsaws in order to cut down giant grasshoppers.
More traditional saintly celebrations surround the March 19 Christian feast day in honor of St. Joseph, husband of St. Mary and foster father of Jesus Christ. Throughout Italy and Sicily this patron saint of the poor is honored with a week of pageants and processions, culminating with the "banchetto di San Giuseppe" (banquet of St. Joseph) or "tavole di San Giuseppe" (table of St. Joseph) following midday mass on March 19. These celebratory meals are usually held outdoors and include everyone in town. It is customary for participants to taste a sample of every dish...no small undertaking as this may number in excess of one hundred different pastas, soups, salads, fish specialties, breads, pastries. In the United States, a wide variety of religious and culinary events mark this feast day, most notably in California, Detroit, Minneapolis, and Buffalo. As it turns out, St. Joseph is also the patron saint of pastry chefs and fry cooks. His feast day is especially well known for the elaborate breads, known as "grano duro" loaves, and pastries which are made to commemorate this day.
Both St. Patrick's Day and St. Joseph's Day also mark the beginning of the planting season in Ireland and Italy, respectively, and in Spain, where in Valencia especially, St. Joseph's is tied into the celebration of Las Fallas. As such, green is more than a national symbol on St. Patrick's Day, it serves as a symbol of the earth's renewal and, for many Christians, a spiritual renewal leading both into spring blossoms and the Easter season.
...Wherein Ian ponders the finer points of high tea, ale, libations, the Irish, and the annual frenzy to eat "green" food. Ian Makay, author of the book "Food for Thought: Being a Compendium of Culinary Quips, Quotes, Anecdotes, Facts, & Recipes by the Great and Not-So-Great," is, among other less savory things, a writer and chatroom host for the award winning e-zine The electronic Gourmet Guide (a.k.a., The eGG) and has been featured on the TV Food Network's Food News & Views. Come join Ian and share a pleasant repast at Border's bookstore in New York along with thoughts and questions on food, life, and writing. Afterwards, the author will be available to sign copies of "Food for Thought."
This page originally published as part of the electronic Gourmet Guide between 1994 and 1998.
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Modified August 2007
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