Saint Patrick, Snakes, and Interfaith Green Bagels

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.

Haiti: Interfaith Syncretism, Symbiosis

Today, in the “On Religion” column in the New York Times,  Samuel G. Freedman finally points out that Haitian Vodou is a legitimate, important and much-misunderstood religion. And yet, Freedman’s copy editors persist in using the spelling “voodoo,” not only refusing to recognize it with the capitalization they give to any other world religion (Buddhism, Hinduism), but maintaining the Americanized spelling associated with Hollywood horror movies, rather than one of the more phonetically-accurate spellings (Vodou, or Vodun)  more true to the French-inflected pronunciation in Haitian Creole.

But returning, as I always do, to the subject of celebrating two religions: Freedman explains that “between 50 and 95 percent of Haitians practice at least elements of voodoo, often in conjunction with Catholicism.” He does not clarify that this wide range reflects a  shift in recent decades. Haiti was once nearly 100 percent Catholic, with the majority also practicing Vodou. But Protestant churches have made inroads in Haiti (and throughout the Catholic world), and Protestant clergy are less willing to tolerate the involvement of their adherents with Vodou. When I lived in northeastern Brazil in the 1990s, I saw the same shift occurring: “believers” (fundamentalist Protestants) did not participate in the Catholic and African celebration of  Carnaval (and did not drink, dance, or wear pants if they were women). This fact had a felicitous personal consequence for me when we lived in northeastern Brazil: our Protestant babysitter was available and willing to work for us while my husband and I went out and “played” throughout Carnaval.

American news reports on Haiti have almost always focused on misery, and Americans may not realize that in Haiti, Catholics celebrate  Carnival in the days before Lent,  just as Catholics in Brazil, New Orleans and Europe do. In Europe, Carnival evolved when the Catholic church absorbed Ancient Roman festivals, and those European pre-Christian elements followed colonists to the Americas, mixing with African and indigenous American rituals to create New World Carnivals.

In my recent essay on celebrating both Catholicism and Vodou, I referred to the intertwining of the African and Catholic pantheon of saints and spirits as “syncretism.” Freedman avoids using this word, perhaps because the Catholic church discourages syncretism, with its implication of  two religions in dynamic equilibrium. On the other hand, the Catholic church has envisioned and encouraged a dance between Catholicism and local cultures, a process referred to as “inculturation,” in order to deliver Catholic teachings in diverse settings. Inculturation signals respect for cultural differences but also for the boundaries between them. Syncretism threatens those boundaries.

Freedman evades the dangerous implications of the word “syncretism” by referring instead to a “Catholicism in symbiosis with voodoo, a Catholicism in which saints are conflated with African deities.” The word “conflates” implies that the superimposition, the equation of saints and African spirits is mistaken, or negative. Symbiosis, again, implies that two entities remain separate. But I suspect that for many Haitians, Catholicism and Vodou coexist in a marriage so intimate that they are “as one.” Freedman interviewed Vodou priest and religion professor Patrick Bellegarde-Smith, who compared Haitians to those Japanese who perform both Shinto and Buddhist rituals and “see no contradiction or mutual exclusivity.”

Meanwhile, those of us practicing both Christian and Jewish rituals await recognition of our much-misunderstood pathway. Judaism and Christianity have different cultures and rituals, worth highlighting, specifying, preserving. But at the same time, I do not fear allowing the two religions to coexist in my community, my family, my brain and body: personally, after a lifetime of contemplating this conundrum, I see no contradiction or mutual exclusivity.

Haitian Spirits

My mother-in-law has a sequined Vodou flag hanging above her fireplace in Connecticut. When people inquire, she explains that it depicts the ship Imamou transporting the Haitian dead to the land of the spirits. Visitors tend to go quiet as she delves into the belief system of Vodou, the national religion of Haiti.

This week, Imamou groans through the waves, tragically overloaded with tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of passengers–Haitian earthquake victims. As the horrific news and images swirl around us, I wait to hear whether my husband’s skills as a Creole-speaker and relief worker will mean he gets on a plane. I know he wants to go: of all the countries he has worked in around the world, Haiti is his first love, never forgotten.

In 1983, I went to visit him while he was working in a home for street boys in Petionville. In preparation, I read Maya Deren’s Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, a seminal work on Vodou written by a filmmaker in the 1950s. Then I read Robert Farris Thompson’s influential Flash of the Spirit: African & Afro-American Art & Philosophy, a book describing how West and Central Africans brought their religions to the New World and preserved them by interweaving them with Catholicism in places including Haiti, New Orleans, and Brazil.
I arrived in Haiti during the week when the Christian holidays of All Souls, All Saints and the Day of the Dead converge with the most important Vodou celebrations. In the night, we heard drumming, and got out of bed to walk until we saw a circle of dancing Haitians dressed in white. An eager journalist, I wanted to approach the circle. My husband, with healthy respect for the culture in which he was living, convinced me that we should return to bed, and not intrude.

Somehow, our lives have continued to circle the Atlantic in a mysterious pattern echoing the slave trade. We lived for three years in West Africa, including trips to Benin, Togo and the Yoruba centers that so informed the religion of Africans in the Americas. Later, we found ourselves living in northeastern Brazil, where African religions absorbed Catholic saints and symbols to become Candomble.

So why write about all this on my interfaith blog? A lot of folks (Pat Robertson, David Brooks) are making ignorant comments this week about “voodoo” (a Hollywood construct) and Haiti. For those who want a deeper understanding, I recommend the two books above–both are authoritative, deep yet lively. Joseph Campbell wrote the introduction to Deren’s book.

In my own interfaith journey, Haiti provided the first thrilling encounter with complex, compelling and obviously syncretic religious practice. Later, I came to see all religions as syncretic: evolving together, influencing each other, intertwining and swapping information like strands of DNA. In Haiti and Brazil and Africa, adhering to more than one religious worldview simultaneously is often central, not marginal. In my quest for interfaith acceptance, I take inspiration from my time in these rich and deeply spiritual cultures.

Sorting through our photos from Haiti, trying to choose one for this post, I found many images of the street boys who taught my husband Creole. They should be men now in their prime, and it is very hard to think about their fates this week. As others have pointed out, death is always close in Haiti, and the dead remain an intimate part of the family. After the spirit Agwe ferries Imamou through the waters, their souls are home again in Ginen (Guinea), the land of the ancestors. The idea provides comfort, much like the consoling Judeo-Christian idea of heaven as green pasture. So I chose a photo of a bit of green in Haiti’s mountains, remnants of farmland and trees, in an attempt to envision a peaceful place for all of these souls, and a remnant of hope for a future of ecological and agricultural renewal in Haiti.


Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available now in hardcover, paperback and eBook from Beacon Press.

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