Thursday, March 15, 2012

Snakes and Bladders: Celebrating All Snakes Day

Although Montreal celebrates St. Patrick's Day on a Sunday with its annual parade, March 17th is the actual St. Patrick's Day, which in 2010 falls on a Wednesday. Historically, St. Patrick is one of Christianity’s best-known and most-loved saints who is credited with banishing all snakes from Ireland.

Of course, there never have been any snakes in Ireland for St. Patrick to banish, and some believe that the snakes actually represent the Druids that were killed or the pagans and their beliefs that were replaced by Christian doctrine. Historians are quick to point-out that this cannot be true either since paganism was still quite popular a century after Patrick's death (Living Liminally, Patheos). I mean, just look at the timeline (quoted from Brian Walsh):
St Patrick died in 457CE.

High King Muirchertach mac Muiredaig, whose stories record him as having both priests and druids in his court, died in 534CE.

And Diarmait mac Cerbaill, the last High King to be inaugurated through pagan rites, died in 565CE.

The Uraicecht Becc, a legal text usually dated to the ninth century continues to give the druids legal status, though much devolved. By this point they were listed as one of the dóer-nemed or professional classes which depend for their status on a patron, along with blacksmiths and others, as opposed to the fili (often roughly translated as bard), who still enjoyed free nemed-status. [nemed is derived from a word meaning ‘sacred’].

The claim that Saint Patrick had banished all of the snakes and venomous creatures from Ireland was first recorded much later.  Patrick’s own surviving documents and the oldest two hagiographies don’t mention this episode at all.

So when someone go on about saying Paddy destroying paganism, they are ignoring about half a millennium of Irish history; half a millennium of *pagan* history.

I would argue that the historical facts are now irrelevant compared to what the holiday means today to a modern audience. For those Pagans who cannot stand the idea of celebrating a Christian icon, there is even talk of replacing St. Patrick's Day with the Feast of Cú Chulainn (Facebook), the Celtic super-hero of Irish myth and legend.

At face value, the spirit of St. Patrick's Day has certainly been hijacked by boorish behaviour, but it's certainly not the only holiday in which that happens. Some people are happy to gloss over the surface of meaningful events while others can make the best of a holiday to appreciate it's deeper symbolism and meaning.

Let's take a look at the other seasonal celebrations we have and consider their excesses:
  • For Summer, we have St. Jean Baptist Day and Canada Day.
  • For Fall, we have Thanksgiving and Halloween.
  • For Winter, we have Christmas/Yule and New Year's Day.
  • For Spring, we have St. Patrick's Day and Easter.
There is an opportunity for extremism and boorish behavior for each of these holidays ranging from excessive drinking, eating, consumerism, etc. So why does St. Patrick's Day get all the criticism?

What are we really celebrating in March? If you take a look outside, you'll no undoubtedly notice that the snow has mostly melted away and the days are sunnier. The Vernal Equinox is nigh, signalling the coming of Spring and Summer, a time of growth, rebirth, and warmth. After three months of darkness and cold, St Patrick’s Day is our moment to cast off the dark shroud of winter and welcome the warmth of the sun and the rebirth of nature.

From a pagan perspective, many modern-day pagans refuse to celebrate or even acknowledge this day. But just as our modern-day pagan pioneers attempted to reclaiming the word "witch", I should think pagans can attempt to reclaim the spirit of the Vernal Equinox celebration.

If St. Patrick's Day celebrates the day when the patron saint of Ireland seemingly drove all the snakes from Ireland, then we can celebrate "All Snakes Day": the day the Druids tricked St. Patrick into thinking the snakes had been banished (as suggested by the late, great Isaac Bonewits).

But in the end, we Pagans welcome the Sun God and the Green Goddess with open arms, excited with what the warmer seasons have to offer in terms of their bounty and boundless possibilities. Just like the snake who sheds his outer skin, so do we shed our warm, protective clothing and feel the warmth on our faces and skin. We may even hoist a horn of mead or ale to share with our kith and kin, bringing family and friends together to make plans and celebrate the friendship that got us through the darker winter days.

So Happy All Snakes Day to you, fellow Pagans! Go out and revel in the heat that warms your snake skin. Moderation in all things is best, so I caution you to not indulge in it too much and be safe. In the meantime, I will raise a toast to you and yours while we enjoy the longer days together. As for St. Patrick? It's only fitting that we extend him some Irish hospitality for his special day if he'll lower his ash staff and share a pint or two with us.