Holidays in Canada fall into three general categories. There are holidays that involve presents, holidays that involve candy and holidays that involve alcohol.
And judging from the evidence last week, St. Patrick’s Day has become this country’s most popular and widely celebrated day for raising a toast, far surpassing New Year’s Eve or Canada Day. In the minds of many Canadians, March 17 even appears to have replaced Easter as the true herald of a coming spring—and in ways that have little to do with the self-restraint of Lent. What should we make of this annual outbreak of Irishness?
Bar owners across the country report St. Patrick’s Day is now the most popular event on their calendar. “It’s the biggest one-day sales for us every year,” says Tania Richards, director of sales and marketing for Granville Entertainment, which runs three bars in Vancouver. Pub owner Grant Sanderson of Edmonton notes that “in the last five years it has gone from being a good day to being the best day in the pub business—it’s two or three times as big as New Year’s.” The reason is to be found in the length of time people spend celebrating. Richards observes that New Year’s events typically don’t begin until dinner time, while “St. Paddy’s is a flow of people all day long. It lasts 16 hours.” It’s become common to quit work at lunch to perfect one’s brogue on St. Patrick’s Day.
The same holds for students. Many university professors now debate the wisdom of holding classes on March 17, as attendance drops precipitously. This year herds of well-refreshed students were spotted wandering about in plastic green bowlers and green facepaint (and leaving behind bright-green messes) in many Ontario cities such as London, Waterloo and Peterborough. St. Patrick’s Day parties have become as reliable an indicator of spring on campus as short skirts and final exams.
Of course all this excitement has properly caught the attention of police as well. St. Patrick’s Day is now one of the most important days of the year for scheduled drunk-driving patrols.
How did all this happen?
History tells us the real Saint Patrick was likely born somewhere in Britain around 385. He was kidnapped by Irish pirates as a young man and brought to Ireland. He escaped, studied for the priesthood and eventually returned to organize the Church in Ireland. He died around 461, after a life of poverty and religious dedication. It hardly seems the raw material for a day of good cheer and green beer.
Nonetheless, several centuries of Irish immigration, and those immigrants’ well-earned reputation for conviviality, have turned St. Patrick into the patron saint of all. It probably doesn’t hurt that the middle of March also marks the coming end to a long winter for residents in most parts of Canada. The combination of melting snow and the opportunity to spend a day celebrating this fact has turned a once-obscure ethnic celebration into a rare unifying secular event that all Canadians seem to agree on—like Olympic hockey, only less stressful.
Montreal’s long-standing St. Patrick’s Day festivities nicely illustrate its broad crossover appeal. The annual parade, which dates back to 1824, appears as popular with French-speaking Montrealers and recent immigrants as with Anglos. It is a moment for all to enjoy, regardless of the shamrocks in their background.
Given that Canadians across the country have already voted with their feet, and mugs, to make St. Patrick’s Day more important than other existing public holidays, perhaps we should be making it official.
Many provinces have arbitrarily declared the third Monday in February to be a public holiday. It’s called Family Day in Ontario, Alberta and Saskatchewan. Manitobans call it Louis Riel Day. Prince Edward Island has Islander Day. While these provinces seem eager to give their citizens a day to relax, February has little to recommend it by way of weather or relevance. So why not simply shift the date to March 17?
Official recognition of everyone’s inherent right to be Irish for one day a year would sanctify the fact many people already take the day off. Combining St. Patrick’s Day with March break would broaden its appeal away from drinking and encourage more family-friendly celebrations. It would also serve as recognition of Canada’s proud reputation as a nation of immigrants. And allow Canadians a glimmer of hope that spring is just around the corner.
They say that if you’re lucky enough to be Irish, you’re lucky enough. On St. Patrick’s Day, that ought to apply to everyone.