Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
How to foster a sense of community while tipsy.
For hapless urban pedestrians, St. Patrick’s Day is a foul-smelling purgatory—you’re straddling the line between one puke pile and another. It’s perhaps the ultimate test of observation and agility, calisthenics and calculus. Step just left enough to avoid that green-tinted puddle, but not so far that you wind up bumping into other pedestrians, or—oof—splashing into another puddle that you hadn’t noticed. It’s pretty gross out there.
Sure, of course, the holiday is an ode to day-drinking, salty foods, and questionable decision-making. But maybe it’s also an example of ways in which urbanites work to make a city teeming with strangers feel a little more familiar and welcoming.
I talked to Michelle F. Weinberger, a professor at Northwestern who studies the science of consumption. I wanted to know why otherwise self-respecting, rational people are so willing to wear goofy outfits and do outrageous things on St. Patrick’s Day. (Exhibit A: Last year, I saw a group in Manhattan stumbling along a bar crawl, and one guy projectile-vomited without breaking his stride.) Who would sign up for this, when you can drink—with less chance of getting puked on—any other day of the year? And why?
Weinberger says that rituals—like drinking ominously green-tinted beers—foster a sense of community that “helps to reinforce bonds between fellow celebrants.” Consumption—of food, drinks, or ambiguously-Irish cultural appropriation—“sits at the center of so many rituals, and is often the physical vehicle that connects us and brings us together,” she says.
It’s not hard to imagine why this might feel especially important in an urban environment that lends itself to anomie.
In a bustling place full of anonymous people with vastly different life experiences, social rituals offer a commonality to cling to. Perhaps that’s why people grope for opportunities to rally around customs, even if they’re cheesy, or constructed, or kind of disgusting.
Historically, that’s the role that New York City’s St. Patrick’s Day parade played, too. In the 1800s, Irish immigrants made up a significant share of the city’s population, but they were often lambasted and ostracized in the media and workforce. A recent piece in Atlas Obscura enumerated how the parade functioned as a declaration—a way in which immigrants proclaimed their legitimacy and affirmed their belonging in the community and as a group. One source said that the parades sought to answer the question, “How do we live our collective identity?” by insisting, “Hello! We’re here!”
These days, it’s safe to set aside any question as to the holiday’s claim to a kind of objective authenticity. Few would argue that all of the patrons flocking to America’s 40,000-plus bars, taverns, and pubs to throw back some beers are paying homage to their Irish ancestry. In the U.S., it’s a $4.6 billion holiday. Worldwide, drinkers consume 13 million pounds of Guinness; there’s a 70 percent uptick in cabbage shipments. Certainly, most of the hooligans wearing green t-shirts, woozy and wobbling on bar stools and benches, stamping their feet against sawdust-strewn floors, are reveling in a uniquely American celebration of an “old country” to which they lay no ancestral claim.
But everyone wants to feel like they belong.
The New York Department of Sanitation even has a fraternal society that borrows from Irish iconography. Established in 1938, the Emerald Society hosts breakfasts and parades throughout the year. Their logo is a clover bordered by a claddagh—two hands clasping a heart, a symbol that features prominently in Irish and Celtic jewelry—a symbol of fealty, loyalty, and friendship.
Those qualities feel good. As the writer Olivia Laing, author of The Lonely City, explained to my colleague Eillie Anzilotti, “you can be lonely anywhere, but there's a particular flavor to living in a city: one becomes so intensely aware of how richly populated other people's lives are.” It’s not so hard to imagine why someone would want to raise a glass to feeling a little more connected—even if they later puke all over the sidewalk.