Yes, it’s that time of year again, and last night we had green corned beef with potatoes, cabbage, carrots, and onions. My mother used to make that for St. Patrick’s Day, and I continued the tradition (although my new husband suggested when we got married that perhaps the Taylor tradition might be to eat out on St. Patrick’s Day if the Richards tradition included that much green food coloring.
I grew up with green scrambled eggs, and green orange juice, and also with shamrocks and leprechauns and stories of green beer and parades in mid-March. But among the many jokes and posts about the day that filled the internet yesterday one gave me pause. Many had argued about whether the snakes Patrick was said to have driven from Ireland represented the Druids, and if this made him complicit in genocide. Others complained about using the image of a drunken man in green represent the whole nationality. This post pointed out that Americans were simply turning what had started as a religious holiday into an excuse to party.
This kind of hit me where I lived. I’ve said that I never met a holiday I didn’t like. My kids said that living in our house was like living in a gift shop. We had special table cloths and dishes, often even special curtains running from colored leaves, through bats, pumpkins, candy canes, snowflakes, hearts, jelly beans, colored eggs, to “stars and stripes” (which stayed up Memorial Day through Labor Day). I love the way holiday traditions connect us to our past- to our culture, and I liked to look on the good side of everything.
But suddenly I can see that to enjoy the food and decorations, and use the rest simply as a “party theme” is worse than ignoring it. This is an ongoing discussion; it pops up at Halloween and at Christmas. Each year the First Nations people point out the problems with celebrating Columbus Day, because the Columbian Exchange that offered resources to Europeans, destroyed their cultures, even before most Europeans got here (and when they did, many of the interactions were nearly as callus as the bacteria). Valentine’s Day is not even considered a holy day any more, but in this over-populated world, only individuals are concerned with fertility. It occurred to me that if this pattern continues, in another generation Martin Luther King Day will have no references to civil rights, but might be celebrated with comical images of pickaninnies, and other superficial and diminishing symbols. I am suddenly wondering if what I’ve always thought of as an exploration of the many wonderful cultures of the world hasn’t been terribly misguided.
I do try to understand the context and the reasons behind the traditions. My feeling is that all holidays are essentially local holidays, they mean to each person what they mean in that context to that person. So the same Sunday dinner can represent to one person the ability to show that she can afford the things she couldn’t have when she had less money, to another a trial during which he is forced to enduring constant criticism, while another sees the same meal as a chance to relax and joke with family. When I have put green food coloring in my boiled dinner it brings back the memories of many guests seeing the bizarre dish for the first time, memories of those I’ve loved, and happy times. But I remember in school many kids who looked on the day as an excuse to get free punches in under the “tradition” of “they’re not wearing green”. I remember Valentines as a day where we were forced to pretend to like people we didn’t, and to once again see the popular kids get more than the rest of us. Holiday parades have turned into a political battle over inclusion. Turning a river green now makes me wonder about ecological repercussions.
As I google various holidays, I discover holidays based on wonderful sentiments: days where brothers and sisters show their appreciation for each other, communities recognize their dependence on their local spring, the change of the seasons…. Looking at a culture’s holidays shows what they find important. If modern America treats every named day as an opportunity to eat more, put up more decorations, spend more money, and make fun of people, that does say a lot about us. Many holidays (like Cinqo de Mayo, or St. Patrick’s) are seen as a way to celebrate one’s connection to one’s roots. This is a good thing, but where is the culture when “everyone is Irish today!” Perhaps having worked so hard to become an homogenous culture we have lost the benefits people used to gain from their culture. Has community become so threatening a concept that we are trying to do away with it? “We” cannot be defined without there being a category of “not us”. If we are afraid of ANY exclusion, we have lost what makes us special.
A lot of modern so-called holidays are days some group has designated to promote or increase awareness of their product or cause. I try to find something good in these days of appreciation and awareness. It makes me grateful to be reminded of difficulties other people face, and to be reminded of the wonderful things I have- whether it’s “wow, I’ve never even heard of that disease!” or “yes, it’s good to remember how wonderful it is to fly a kite” (eat an apple, play with bubbles). Gratitude is a good thing. I think in cultures closer to nature, it was easier to remember to be grateful for things like harvest, or spring returning. If you lived close to the edge of survival, those things were closer to your consciousness. We are insulated from a lot of that these days.
I am frequently surprised how many people don’t know a lot about earlier cultures, what holidays and rites of passage originally meant, or how long-forgotten religions worked. We don’t understand that feasts were often a way to distribute food (from those who’d been blessed with wealth) to the poor. Our culture has been monotheist so long we don’t understand how a society such as Rome worked with polytheism. Nearly every day was sacred to some god or other, but not everyone participated in all the holidays. I guess we carry over the “we’re all going to do the same thing together at the same time” idea over onto our holidays. Perhaps the idea that a certain day is supposed to be special, combined with the resistance to telling anyone how to celebrate leaves is what leaves us with nothing but “party” to share. But partying without respecting the reason for the celebration is the opposite of making a day “holy”.
It is appropriate for a country to establish certain national days of group celebration: This day we celebrate the founding of our country. This day we honor our dead soldiers, or our live ones, or our working people. It is natural to celebrate harvest, and our mothers and fathers. It’s not surprising that with such a huge majority of the country self-identifying as Christians, that we acknowledge that most people in the country will want to take the holidays of the shared faith off, and that we offer parity for those of other faiths. But I think we should try to look beyond the idea that time is divided between work days and non-working days; because this makes whether we’re producing income the defining quality of our time. If we define the socially acceptable aspect of a holiday as what we spend money on: decorations, food, gifts, etc., we also define value by money. This seems to me a very dangerous iconography.
Part of the reason I like to explore the special foods of holidays is because it’s not expensive- we have to eat anyway. Many of the traditional holiday foods are not expensive because they are what most people could afford. We can get sucked in by trying to “keep up with the Joneses” (or Rothchilds), and make ourselves feel as worthy as the rich by eating what they eat. I’ve seen commercials that suggest “If you don’t serve them – our product- how will you know that they care?”, and “-our product- … because you are worth it”. My goodness, don’t they know how to motivate us spend money! I am going to continue to think long and hard about holidays and what they mean, and how we change their meanings by how we celebrate them.
Meanwhile, you can go to my facebook or live journal pages to get my daily collection of holidays if you like. There’s a lot about what makes a holy day to think about, but at the moment, I still feel that people getting together to remember what’s good in the world is a holy activity- even if sometimes the holiday was created by a typo on the internet. Gratitude and awareness are good things. So, Happy Oatmeal Cookie Day!