Ah yes, I wish each and all of you a Happy Saint Patrick’s Day, even though I personally don’t really “celebrate” it and it’s barely any kind of holiday in Romania whatsoever. Here in this country it’s mostly just a vague excuse for a few bars to hold a theme party.
Nonetheless, just like Halloween and Valentine’s Day, March 17 is stealthily infiltrating Romania’s consciousness. Therefore it’s worth getting into the back story a little bit.
There are actually two components. The first is the Irish component, as in the country of Ireland, in which (by all accounts) a real man named Patrick came to Ireland approximately 1600 years ago and converted many of the residents to Christianity.
Over time he then became the patron saint of all of Ireland. More than a thousand years after his death, the English were in full military and political control of Ireland. And so recognizing and celebrating (the now canonized) Saint Patrick was a way of asserting one’s Irish identity.
The Great Irish Famine occurred about 150 years ago and led to widespread emigration to the United States. There was a tremendous backlash against these immigrants (including a great deal of violence) and so celebrating Saint Patrick (especially with parades) again became a way of asserting pride in one’s Irish identity.
And then about 100 years ago, cultural values shifted in the United States, and the Irish were accepted. The parades began to become more and more popular. And now it’s a national holiday (although not a government/bank holiday) that just about everyone celebrates, even if they’re not of Irish descent whatsoever.
The two universal themes of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations today are drinking alcohol and wearing something green. As a child (in the United States), if I showed up to school on March 17 without wearing something green, everyone then had the “right” to pinch me or inflict pain on me. As an adult, it’s quite difficult to avoid the numerous invitations to go out drinking in bars and restaurants.
I’ve lived in a few places in the United States which had a significant African-American (black) population. And one crafty old fellow told me once that if you want to avoid bars with black customers, always choose one that’s labeled as an “Irish” bar. Quite frankly, he was right. There’s no longer any segregation by law but anything labeled “Irish” seems to de facto exclude people of color.
Being “Irish”, whether literally or figuratively, has become kind of a coded signifier in America for being white. While I’m sure some people of color in the United States will celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day, overall it’s a holiday for white Americans celebrating their heritage, even if they aren’t Irish in the biological sense.
Long story short – in America, St. Patrick’s Day is a holiday for white people. And quite frankly, a lot of them get extremely enthusiastic about it. In Romania however, today you’ll be lucky to get a glass of green beer (it’s just regular beer with dye added) or a bottle of Guinness at reduced prices.
Switching gears and focusing on the real Saint Patrick, the course of Christianity took quite an interesting turn in Ireland. For much more on that, see here. Due to a number of factors, including Ireland’s remoteness from continental Europe, Christianity in Ireland differed greatly from “standard” Catholic doctrine for a long, long time. And the monasteries in Ireland preserved some rather amazing documents, including some from Egypt, Syria and (what is now) Israel.
However what most people know about Saint Patrick today is the legend that a) he banished all snakes from the island and b) he used the native shamrock plant with its three leaves as a way to explain trinitarian doctrine. It is true that there are no indigenous snakes in Ireland and that the shamrock is the symbol of modern Ireland, but otherwise these are just apocryphal stories and not true in the historical sense.
With the cultural onslaught of American TV and movies here in Romania, I suspect that this holiday (or some form of it) will increase in popularity in the coming years. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll even see a sign on a bar or written on some cheesy merchandise at the mall saying, “Ziua Sfantul Patriciu” :P