March 17, 2006

When you've gone from Baltimore to Dundalk, you've gone nearly from one side of the nation to the other - from County Cork in the southwest all the way to County Louth, north of Dublin - and if you made that trip today you'd find some serious celebrating as people try to put their own stamp on a uniquely American holiday: St. Patrick's Day.

For many years, Ireland ignored its patron saint on his blustery, bone-chilling day, but it finally succumbed to pressure from across the sea. Dublin gamely tries to downplay the American roots of its celebration, and stages a four-day St. Patrick's Festival with street theater and Argentine acrobats and corporate sponsorship (not American, somehow?). Yesterday's Irish Times called it "strangely opaque and meaningless."

One thing about America: It sure knows how to export holiday celebrations, even to countries that think they can resist. Halloween and Valentine's Day are spreading across much of the world, and St. Patrick's Day is right behind. (Moscow holds its shamrock-bedecked parade on Sunday.) The beauty of these holidays is exactly what the Irish Times was complaining about. You want to party? Hey - who needs a reason?

In the U.S., the National Retail Federation reports that 96.3 million "consumers" will celebrate St. Patrick this year, and that they'll spend $2.69 billion. Most of what they consume will be in the form of beer, whiskey, greeting cards, shiny hats, cardboard leprechauns, green chrysanthemums and the sorts of beads and trinkets that bring to mind just how close St. Patrick's Day is to Mardi Gras.

Religious holidays - and that's what all these are, or were - once had meaning. But, for the record, St. Patrick's Day was defined by the Irish Protestants who first celebrated it, in Boston and New York two centuries ago. It's as American as a frankfurter. In the real Baltimore and Dundalk, if you want to paint your face green just because you have an excuse today to do so, go right ahead. Don't trouble yourself over Catholic saints or English oppression. It's the meaninglessness of the gesture that makes it so appealing.

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