I am not Catholic, not by a longshot. Nevertheless, I have worn green every St. Patty’s Day since I was first pinched for not doing so back in the third grade. I even wore green the March 17th day of my interview to work with Jewish college students at the University of Delaware. I am glad I did. That day I learned three important lessons, confirmed more widely in the years since:
- Most people know nothing, or nearly nothing, about St. Patrick.
- Day-drinking is the “hero” of today’s St. Patty’s Day celebrations.
- Jews in America today do not have heroes. Role models, yes; “national” heroes, no.
This last lesson is apparently well established, as BroBible.com is able to profile the 15 Best College St. Patrick’s Day Party’s. Delaware is ranked #14 and still manages to look like this:
Why has alcohol replaced the Saint as the central concern of the day? I am sure there are many reasons having to do with the secularization of religious life, evidenced by the shift to all things Irish, as opposed to all things Patrick; with the increasing emptiness of college life, apart from marginal efforts to add meaning and depth; with the contemporary confusion of celebrity with role modeling; and more.
St. Patrick has an amazing story. He is worthy of admiration for his faith in captivity, for his moral courage, and for his ability to express foreign ideas in the local language. A British Roman, he was kidnapped and enslaved in Ireland. After escaping and returning home, he studied to be a missionary to his former captors! He went so far as to pay the owner he escaped the money his freedom would have cost. In short, he fits the definition of a hero. Leadership guru John Maxwell takes Patrick’s heroism to teach leadership lessons.
St. Patrick catches our notice then. Today’s celebrations, though, demonstrate a different aspect of his heroic power: he was a translator. He taught the concept of the Holy Trinity by looking at a shamrock clover (that’s why the shamrock is a ubiquitous symbol of the day). His Celtic cross bridged Druid ideas about the sun with Christian views of Jesus’s crucifixion. In his honor, American college students of all faith backgrounds translate the anniversary of his day of death as an “excuse to drink during the day.”
I doubt they know that St. Patrick’s Day marks the anniversary of his death (a very Jewish time to remember someone). I do know that they drink alcohol at night (and, if not for classes, would do so during the day) in large part to fill a gaping hole in their lives. When all their efforts are meant to follow a supposedly straight line from class and extra-curricular activities to a career in a world that does nothing to guarantee that conclusion, some form of escape is needed.
In a different age, heroes would offer that escape. Comic book superheroes would be righting wrongs, fighting Hitler and winning the day. Before them, Horatio Alger’s boys would pick themselves up by the boot-straps and rise to economic prominence in the American Dream. The Pilgrims made a Thanksgiving dinner to celebrate surviving in the New World with help from the Native Americans. David slew Goliath. Abraham destroyed the idols in his father’s shop. But most of these heroes seem tarnished today: empty dreams, propaganda, half-truths, myths, or exaggerations. In a instant-news world, the hero of a moment is overshadowed by another’s worthy deeds or by sordid details of other aspects in his/her life. Today, celebrities are understood to be fallible. We have no heroes.
Interestingly, Jewish students seem to have role models. When, around St. Patrick’s Day, I ask them if they have heroes, they invariably mention parents or grandparents. They do cycle through some famous names as potential nominees, but again, invariably go with family. (Some young women have started to name famous women as heroes, but they seem outnumbered 1 to 4.) In a way, I think this position promising. To have no heroes is to need to look within.
I just wish that when students looked inward, they saw more than fear, emptiness, or the desire to break free. If we taught something more personal, more soulful, then perhaps they wouldn’t need an excuse to day-drink; they’d have an excuse to drink “to life” (l’chaim). Perhaps, too, St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated with such zeal for its green reminder of the coming spring. I doubt it, but I’ll put my green on anyway, in celebration of Ireland’s hero, of the hero in each of us, and to the greener grass somewhere else or in some other time. May we each find the luck we seek.