I had long known that my grandfathers came from France and Denmark, but what I hadn't known is that my maternal grandmother's family was nearly full-blooded Irish. So I got pretty excited when I found out I actually had a reason to celebrate a holiday of my own: St. Patrick's Day.
That's where things got complicated. When I pointed out my heritage on my Facebook page, some were indignant or confused: "Why do you celebrate that day?" I was asked. Didn't I realize that St. Patrick had driven the Druids (i.e., snakes) out of Ireland and, in doing so, had waged a religious war against them?
Hmmm. I hadn't thought of that. My first reaction, honestly, was a bit defensive. There are times when it seems that whatever one posts on Facebook, it brings critics out of the woodwork eager to squelch a person's enthusiasm. And, dammit all, I was excited about my Irish heritage. I wanted to celebrate it. Certainly anyone who knows me realizes that I'm 1) not Catholic and, 2) vehemently opposed to religious warfare and oppression. To quote the title of an album by Gaelic Storm, "What's the rumpus?"
Well, when I started to look at it from the critics' perspective, I realized they had a point. Hadn't I railed against celebrating Columbus Day because Columbus had been responsible for killing and oppressing Native Americans in the Caribbean? How was this any different?
Then I got to thinking again: Why should I tell Italians they don't have a right to celebrate their heritage, if I want to celebrate my Irish heritage? St. Patrick probably never drank green beer or consorted with leprechauns. So how did March 17 really celebrate the repression of the Druid way in Ireland, or was it more simply a celebration of Irish heritage?
(As an aside, Patrick wasn't even the first Christian bishop of Ireland - that honor fell to a certain Palladius - and Patrick didn't succeed in expelling all the Druids from Ireland. Not by a long shot. Pagan rites continued to be practiced on the Island for nearly a millennium after his death. And they're being practiced again today.)
Both the Irish and the Italians came in large numbers to American shores in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and both were just as much victims of bigotry and slander as the Druids had been. Can anyone really blame them for latching on to holidays to celebrate their heritage - one day out of the year away from the factories and sweatshops where they toiled to have a little fun? I certainly can't.
One certainly doesn't have to view the clover as a symbol of the Christian trinity, as Patrick himself is said to have done. One can see it as a symbol of the triple goddess or, heck, just as what it is: a clover!
Does St. Patrick's Day glorify a man who supported and spearheaded religious oppression of the Druids? Or is it a day to celebrate Irish heritage, have a few drinks and take a twirl across the dance floor with a bonnie lass?
The answer is yes.
But it can be something more, too. Each year, Jews around the world remember November 9-10 as Kristallnacht, the "Night of Broken Glass." This was the time, in 1938, that the Nazi regime implemented a pogrom against Jews in Germany and Austria, smashing out the windows on the storefronts they owned and leaving glass strewn across the streets. By marking this day, they are vowing to never forget the atrocities committed against them.
So maybe, just maybe, days like Columbus Day and St. Patrick's Day can serve as this sort of reminder, too. The indomitable spirit of the Irish shines through on St. Patrick's Day, and that's something to celebrate. The spirit of the Native Americans has not been crushed, despite the deeds of Columbus, and endures proud to this day. That's something to celebrate, too.
This St. Patrick's Day, I'll drink beer from a green can, listen to some traditional Irish music and remember my ancestors who had a rough go of it - both when Patrick and his like invaded their shores centuries ago and when they came to America looking for a better life just a few generations before me. I won't be celebrating Patrick any more than German Jews celebrate the broken glass on the streets of Berlin. But I'll be remembering. And I'll be celebrating the fact that, while the bigots lie moldering in their graves, the spirit of freedom lives on.