Let’s hear it for stupid, pointless holidays.
You know, it’s funny; one of the things that’s weird about america is our lack of a native culture. The native in native culture includes rain dances and chants; but that really hasn’t seeped into american popular culture due to the, you know, genocide and culture-cide of a century and a half ago.
The bottom line is, we’re not from around here. We’re gumbo. We’re stone soup. We’re fusion cuisine, a weird mis-mash of elements that don’t always work together as a cohesive whole. We’re a fuckin’ mashup.
What that means is that our traditions, our holidays, our cultural fests and ceremonies, one and all, are borrowed, brought in with a baggage by immigrants from a thousand other places. Our native culture is a shaken cocktail of cultures from other places, most of which is celebrate in a shallow, surface sort of way for no real reason but to celebrate.
Now, I’m not putting down celebration for celebration’s sake. Not in the least. However, it’s a funny thing we do here in america.
Think of our major holidays; easter, christmas, independence day, thanksgiving. Our minor ones; st patrick’s day, halloween, valentine’s day. O these, two – thanksgiving and independence day – have relevant cultural meaning. One’s a harvest festival, both celebrate our nation’s birth.
The others though; all of them borrowings from religions, yet sanitized, stripped of meaning. Who are st patrick and st valentine? Who actually knows, if not raised catholic? Our christmas is a cultural fest of reindeer and santa and candy-canes, our easter is a festival of sunny debauchery for some, candy and colored eggs for others. Oh, sure, we know its connected in some way to some guy who died and came back, but that’s not what the holiday’s about.
Even Halloween is a mish-mash for us, ancient celtic/druid/pagen traditions, arcane and dark, weirdly mixed with catholic saint’s festival days. This one is closer to a native holiday that most others, at least the modern way of celebrating it seems to be. But still, it’s a blender-whirl of traditions from other places and other times.
But the ones that most stand out to be as stupid are those which still bear the names of saints. I’ve talked about valentine’s day before, and though I never finished writing it, has another piece on it this year; about the absurd sanitization of a holiday that’s all about the beauty of physical, carnal love. About how we’ve turned it into a sugar-and-flowers day where hallmark makes bank and kids exchange meaningless bits of paper. A day that’s intended to celebrate love in it’s most physical, carnal sense has the blood and sweat and come drained out of it, replaced with a glucose drip.
And then there’s st patricks day. A day that’s all about a saint that means little to the modern american experience. Some guy named Paddy. So we celebrate it by pretending to be irish, putting fucking green food coloring in our beer, drinking irish whisky and irish coffee, and eating corn beef n’ cabbage, and who the fuck cares? Sure, it celebrates one immigrant group, but why that one? Why not the italians, the french, the scots, the africans, the chinese? Why not the pacific islanders? Why not the people who owned this land before we swept in and slaughtered them?
I am irish. Way back, when the ancestors started coming over here from the horrific conditions an ocean away, my ancestors came from scotland, ireland, england, wales, holland, germany, france, and for all I know every other weird little country in europe. All you need to do is look at me to know I’m a celt. Go look at Mary Queen of Scots and you’ll see has my nose. Go look at those doughy boys fighting wars in europe and you can see my heritage.
That’s my culture, part of it; yet I look at the nonsense of america drinking green beer and singing danny boy and wonder why we all care. Why will we all go out tonight and drink and drive and celebrate when we’re not celebrating anything?
It’s because we don’t have anything real to celebrate. It’s because our culture lacks real, resonant holidays. It’s because our country, with that cursed work ethic we’re founded on, has to damned few holidays at all.
Look at other cultures and start counting the holidays. Asia, Europe, latin America; you can’t seem to look at a calendar page without finding a holiday. Holidays where businesses close, where kids are set free from school. Holidays where people parade and dance.
Here in the USA, we get a bizarre, small handful of holidays where people actually stop working, and apart from that, holidays that are meaningless in terms of our never-ending work calendar. No break for carnival; no break for columbus day or MLK day. No break to celebrate the new wine or the fresh october beer, no break to celebrate our founding fathers. No break to celebrate the native cultures we obliterated in founding this country.
So we make our own. Some saint? Let’s drink. Some other saint? Let’s buy candy. Someone got nailed to a cross? Let’s dye eggs. Birth of a prophet? Let’s cut a tree down and put it in our living rooms and exchange wrapped gifts. End of summer? Let’s put on costumes and beg for candy house-to-house.
Now, understand I’m not in any way lamenting the existence of stupid, pointless, made-up holidays. What I’m getting at is this – we do it because we have to, because we as a culture lack a common framework of background, religion, genetic origin. We have no cultural common ground, so we make one up; and choose the most pointless holidays as our focus points.
St valentine means nothing to modern america. Likely there was no st valentine, or at least not one we can point to as the st valentine. St. Patrick means little more, unless you’re a generation or so from Ireland. He’s just another guy with an ‘st’ in front of his name, or another name on the list of saints to pray to for help in case of snake bite.
I’m trying to think of memorable st paddy’s days in my past. It’s a blur; green beer and irish whiskey, huge steaming pots of corn beef (and how many of us have yacked corn beef post st paddy’s day over the years?). as a child, getting pinched because I wouldn’t wear green (“But I have green eyes I don’t have to,” I’d say, and of course now, I have green tattoos). Drunk, is mostly what I remember; drunk in a forced we’re supposed to get drunk way, not because I actually felt any will to celebrate. Drunk, and listening to Horslips and the Pogues, the Crusaders, the Clancy Brothers, the Chieftains. Drunk on beer and Jamison and waking up not knowing where I was.
It’s a funny collage of blurry memory, And with few key exceptions, the memories come with a shrug. Eh, whatever.
I’d like to say I’ll be going out tonight to listen to fiddles and pipes and dancing a jig in my best kilt; more likely I’ll be sitting home watching Deadwood. No dancing, no piping, no waking up bruised and confused.
Maybe it’s just that I’m getting to be an old fucker, but celebrating nothing just seems empty.