Photo courtesy of Sebastien Barre via Flickr.
Tradition is a bit like whisper down the lane: it slips into one ear a certain way, and is either accidentally warped or intentionally hijacked at one or more points along its travel.
Obviously, the commercialization and transformation of holidays is not a bad thing on whole. Bringing families and friends together in celebration is a treat for all — you know, except when it’s not. (Belligerent drunks in green or red, we’re looking it you).
But just as times change, as do people and places, the holidays we celebrate today are a bizarre and tangential offshoot of their original intentions.
St Patrick’s Day
What it was: The Irish Roman Catholic holiday of St. Patrick’s Day commemorates March 17th, the death of patron saint of Ireland, St. Patrick, who was actually neither Irish nor named Patrick. Patrick (Maewyn by birth) was a Brit brought to Ireland as a slave, and later became a missionary that brought widespread Christianity to the nation.
Though legend says St. Patrick drove snakes out of Ireland, analysts say there probably were never snakes there to begin with, and that historic references may just be metaphoric for paganism.
What happened: St. Patrick’s Day has been observed modestly in Ireland since the ninth and tenth centuries, after St. Patrick’s life and death in 461 took on mythical qualities, and was officially declared a feast day in the early 1600s.
Upon immigration to America, it became a way for Irish immigrants to celebrate their roots. In Ireland, it evolved from a holy day of obligation to a public holiday, but has never matched American celebrations in size and furor.
What it has become: Today, Americans celebrate St. Patrick’s day by wearing green (so as not to be pinched by leprechauns), ingesting Shamrock shakes and faux-potato candies, and getting very drunk at bar crawls. Though the color green and shamrocks on some levels stay true to the holiday’s origins (green represents the Irish flag; shamrocks were supposedly used by St. Patrick as a metaphor for the Christian Trinity), the rest is of our own invention.
[contextly_auto_sidebar id=”kWUGO6QUFhofRPdNOOdBcUuNIA31WEn9″]What it was: There were several early Christian martyrs named Valentine, at least one of which was beheaded on February 14 during the ancient Roman fertility festival Lupercalia, a celebration complete with goat slaughtering and match-making which some think may have influenced Valentine’s Day thematically.
By legend, Saint Valentine is often told of marrying couples when it was illegal, but because little is actually known historically, St. Valentine’s Day ceased to be a Roman Catholic religious holiday in 1969.
What happened: Valentine’s Day was first made about romantic love by author Geoffrey Chaucer in the 1300s, and later romanticized by William Shakespeare and other authors. Lovers have used the day to send each other cards and gifts of appreciation throughout history, but it became commercialized more fully in the 19th century with the first mass-produced cards.
What it has become: As we’ve discussed before, Valentine’s Day has become a lucrative industry, a Hallmark dynasty both loved and loathed by many. Americans and others celebrate it by giving large teddy bears to one another, cramming into two-top tables for expensive prix-fixe dinners, and buying about $1.7 billion worth of candy.
What it was: Easter celebrates the Christian Son of God Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, three days after his crucifixion by the Romans. It was first celebrated by Jewish Christians, who timed its observance in relation to Passover. Its date was officially established by the First Council of Nicea in 325 AD to be the first Sunday after the Paschal Full Moon.
What happened: The name “Easter” comes from the Anglo-Saxon goddess of Spring, Ostera or Eostre. The celebration of Easter was never actually referenced in the Bible, however, it coincides with a long known pagan festival celebrating spring which predates even Jesus.
Scholars agree that Easter as we know it is more rooted in pagan religion than Christianity; the two have been conflated over time due to certain similarities in timing and the theme of resurrection. Easter didn’t become an American tradition until the 1870s.
What it has become: Today, Americans and others celebrate Easter by painting, hiding, and searching for Easter eggs (which represent empty tombs, and symbolize spring in many cultures), and being visited by a large rabbit called the Easter Bunny (rabbits are known for springtime fertility, but have never been a Christian symbol).
What it was: Back to Jesus, Christmas is famously a celebration of the Christian prophet’s birthday. Though popularly dated to December 25th in the year 1. C.E, it has no date in the New Testament, and is not thought to have been celebrated actively by early Christians. Other historical estimates put the date in March, November, or September.
What happened: It was Roman winter solstice festivals, such as Saturnalia, a week of indulgence and gift-giving, that likely influenced the timing of Christmas and other aspects of the holiday. Christian leaders named the end of Saturnalia as Jesus’ birthday in hopes of transitioning the celebration to reflect the state’s new religion.
The Christmas tree tradition, too, came from pagan custom; mistletoe came from Norse mythology; Santa Claus came from the cult of Greek Bishop St. Nicholas and the Norse god Odin, the celebration of which were secular and widespread enough to survive the Reformation and later be adopted by the Catholic Church.
What it has become: Today, elements of the pagan and Christian influence on Christmas culminate in America and elsewhere as a time of excessive spending, materialism, and ornamental decoration; ironically, as comedian Chris Rock has noted, the exact opposite of what the notoriously minimalist Jesus probably would have deemed acceptable.