Theresa Hong: A toast to St. Patrick

03/09/2011 1:23 AM

03/09/2011 1:37 AM

Oh, how I love St. Patrick's Day. A day when vibrant hues of green dominate the senses and spirits are poured with a light heart and a heavy hand. Irish delicacies such as lamb stew and shepherd's pie are enjoyed, and a pinch in usually highly inappropriate places is not only allowed, but encouraged.

And unlike other holidays, I've always thought of St. Patrick's Day (at least in the States) as a moment when everyone shuns their differences, shares a green beer or five and, as more libations are consumed, attempts to speak in their best (or worst) Irish brogue.

Today's St. Patrick's Day celebrations, however, are a far cry from the Catholic festivals of yesteryear. In fact, some Christian leaders look down upon modern-day festivities, claiming the meaning of the holiday has become as muddled as some unlucky blokes feel the day after indulging in too much beer.

So who exactly was St. Patrick?

Well, funny thing about our favorite Irish saint: He's neither Irish nor a saint. St. Paddy was British, and although listed as a saint, he was never canonized.

Filled with pirates, orphans, slavery, snakes and visions from God, his childhood seems to be straight out of a Hollywood movie. As a boy, St. Patrick was kidnapped by pirates, taken to Ireland and sold into slavery.

According to historians, he spent most of this time in prison, until he experienced a life-altering moment. St. Patrick not only saw God, but was ordered by him to make his escape. St. Paddy more than obliged, returning to Britain.

After his close encounter with the Almighty, St. Patrick decided to join a monastery, eventually becoming a bishop. Shortly after, a dream sent him back to Ireland, where he dedicated himself to converting the mostly pagan Irish to Christianity. For his efforts, St. Patrick is now regarded as the country's patron saint.

According to legend, upon returning to Ireland, St. Patrick drove the forked-tongue serpents out with such conviction that, to this day, they are afraid to return.

Of course, this can also be viewed as an allegory, driving the pagan culture out of the country while ushering in a new era of Christianity. But I like where my mind wanders thinking about thousands of slimy, slithering reptiles reluctantly being banished from the countryside.

After learning more about St. Patrick and his contributions to Ireland, I can see why some individuals or groups would be a bit upset -- even offended -- at how this holiday has become more and more secularized over the years.

I take a different perspective. Although certainly St. Patrick's quest involved transforming a nation into Christians, he was, indeed, responsible for bringing people together from varying backgrounds and uniting them on common ground, much as today's celebration does.

St. Patrick's Day has morphed into a holiday when, regardless of our religion, ethnicity, race or even political affiliation, we explosively celebrate what we do have in common -- friendship, laughs, feasts, libations and, of course, on occasion, a little pinch in all the right places.

I'm not quite sure if old St. Patrick would agree with the pinch, but the rest? I'm pretty sure he'd approve. Here's to the luck of the Irish! Happy St. Paddy's Day!

Theresa Hong writes about food for the Merced Sun-Star. E-mail her at

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