Both my kids have a special affinity for Saint Patrick’s Day, because they have red hair. When they were little, with bright copper ringlets, people would stop and stare and sometimes even ask where they came from, as if they might not be my kids at all. (I have rather dull brown hair). Occasionally, I am sorry to admit, I would shoot back with a snarky, “I adopted them from Ireland.”
My children have Jewish, Presbyterian, Methodist, Quaker, Mennonite, and Roman Catholic ancestors, from England, Scotland, Ireland, Holland, Switzerland and Germany. Their red hair comes from my red-headed Jewish father, and from my English-Dutch-Swiss husband. So although they are redheads, and part Irish, the Irish part is not the red-headed part. Nevertheless, living life as a redhead, or “ginger” as the Brits call it, does seem to increase their identification with their Irish background. My thirteen-year-old son, who is small and lively, with a mischievous freckled face to go with his red curls, delights in dressing up each year as a leprechaun. Today, he wore green madras shorts, a lime green slicker, and a green felt hat with a feather to school. His words: “Mom, I OWN this holiday.”
Meanwhile, my sixteen-year-old daughter read a book about Saint Patrick to her interfaith Sunday School kindergarten class this week. I asked if it explained about the snakes, and she said, “What snakes?” I guess it was some kind of seriously historically-correct picture book, because it did not explain why every lithograph of Saint Patrick depicts him with snakes. According to folklore, Saint Patrick banished the snakes from Ireland. Sadly, according to scientists, there have been no snakes in Ireland since at least the last ice age, since it is an island cut off by frozen seas from the mainland snakes.
So the Irish snakes are apocryphal, or metaphorical. Some historians believe they represent the pagan and druid spirits, driven out by Saint Patrick’s missionary fervor. After all, the snake represents evil in the Biblical context. For this reason, some modern pagans are torn about whether or not to celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day. Meanwhile, snakes play a huge role in the Yoruba-based religions of Haiti (Vodou) and Brazil (Candomble), where Saint Patrick is revered for his power over snakes. The snake spirit in the African Yoruba religion is linked with Saint Patrick in these syncretic religions of the Americas, and the lithograph of Saint Patrick banishing the snakes is common in Vodou and Candomble altars and houses of worship.
“Well, if he didn’t drive out the snakes, what was the book about?” I asked my daughter. This is the downside of growing up Jewish without any Christian education I guess. I am dangerously ignorant at times about Western Christian culture. It pleases me that my own interfaith children, schooled in both religions, now teach me about such things.
My daughter explained to me that Saint Patrick, who was actually a Briton, possibly from Wales, was shipped off to be a slave in Ireland, escaped, and later returned as a priest to convert the pagan and druid Celts to Christianity. Perhaps ambivalence over Patrick’s background, not to mention ambivalence about mass conversions, explains why the Irish themselves did not originally make a big deal out of Saint Patrick’s Day. It was Irish-American immigrants, seeking a way to restore some national pride in the face of terrible discrimination in the New World, who ramped up the holiday with parades, green beer, green dogs, and ultimately, green bagels. Now that I think about it, a green bagel is oddly reminiscent of a green snake holding its own tale, in a symbol of the endless cycle of life.
Both Irish corned beef and cabbage, and green bagels, arose from the culinary cross-fertilization of Irish and Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side. Sadly, green bagels are hard to come by outside of New York City—a city with adequate Jewish and Irish culture to support such whimsical commercial collisions. On this Saint Patrick’s Day, I feel a certain wistfulness that we, an all-American Irish-Jewish family, do not live in that great city, supporting the green bagel market. Corned beef and green bagels: it could be the start of a beautiful interfaith cookbook.
Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and The Interfaith Family Journal (forthcoming in 2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.