News and Culture Notebook
8:47 am
Mon March 17, 2014

Enjoy the saint's day, whether the beads are Rosary or Mardi Gras

It’s not certain when St. Patrick's Day morphed from a just another saint's day into an excuse for some to get drunk to the point of near-incontinence on emerald-colored concoctions. But, sadly, that's what the holiday seems to have become in the United States.

Tonight, green Mardi Gras beads, which are as Irish as Vladimir Putin, will fly in bars from Seattle to St. Augustine. Boozy brogues will be attempted, unsuccessfully. Back in the old country, such antics would be dismissed as "a load of bollocks."

Still, there’s no point in spoiling anyone’s fun. So what if beer companies have made a saint's day into an fake-Celtic Cinco de Mayo? Drink up, don the Budweiser beads, and enjoy, I suppose. Still, there's no harm in pointing out what's sometimes forgotten, confused or misconstrued about St. Patrick's Day on this side of the Atlantic.

A shamrock has three petals. According to legend, St. Patrick used the shamrock to explain the Trinity to the pagan Irish. Three, but one. The shamrock is a national symbol of Ireland. The four-leaf clover, considered lucky because rare, is not. Somehow, four-leaf clovers became part of the stateside St. Patrick's Day jumble of symbols, along with bowler hats and pots o' gold. I blame the sugar-addicted leprechaun on the cereal commercials.

St. Patrick was not Irish. He was Welsh. As such, some say he went to Ireland in search of vowels, but most historians agree that he was kidnapped and taken by force to Ireland, where he spent his young adulthood as a slave. Patrick escaped, returned to Wales and was eventually ordained into Christian priesthood. He returned to Ireland to spread the Gospel to his former captors. His ministry was successful and, by all accounts, without martyrdom. Patrick died peacefully on March 17, though the year is uncertain.

St. Patrick did not drive the snakes out of Ireland and into the sea. The island was serpent-free long before Patrick showed up. But tradition is strong, and depictions of Patrick on medals and cards usually show him pointing down at a slither of snakes in a gesture that says, "Git!" And yes, "slither" is the collective noun for snakes. I had to look that one up.

Green beer…no. Drink it if you like, but this custom is unknown in Ireland. Stout, the usual drink in Ireland, is too dark be colored. The Irish also drink red ales and reddish-brown bitters, neither of which take green food coloring well. The pale yellow, lager beer that we drink in this country is based on Czech and German recipes. Such beer wasn't widely available in Ireland until recent decades, and even now, isn't made green there.

It's still a religious holiday and a family day for some. That's the case in Ireland, and among traditional Irish families in this country. A few of my Facebook friends from Massachusetts confirmed this.

"If you don't go to Mass first thing on the saint's day, you're just tokening it," said Charles Pierce, a native of Shrewsbury, Mass.

Ginny Sullivan Bowditch, of Wellesley, Mass., recalls the holiday as a matter of "having to don itchy Irish sweaters, go to church, attend some kind of hot lunch, hang out with old people, listen to music, etc."

Corned beef and cabbage is not the summit of Irish cuisine. For one thing, seafood and pork are more common than beef in Irish cooking. Irish-Americans in the 19th century, finding salt-cured beef more common than ham in American butcher shops, substituted the beef in their preparations of a traditional ham-and-cabbage dish. It’s definitely a meal for people on a budget. It's an everyday dish, not some kind of special treat.

So here’s hoping you enjoy the holiday. Slainte! That’s the Irish toast, pronounced "SLAN-chuh," meaning "health." May I suggest Guinness and smoked salmon as a tastier, healthier and more authentic alternative to green lager and corned beef. And if you’re of the praying type, say an "Ave" for all the plastic-hatted amateurs out on the roads. It's better to leave this world with Rosary beads in one's hands than with Mardi Gras beads around one's neck.