A lot of people had a good time on “parade day,” March 9. The band, the fire engines, the bagpipes … all of that is fun. And then in the evening, the drinking establishments made a lot of money selling pints of Guinness. All of it, of course, was in the name of St. Patrick.

That’s the irony. The parade, the drinking, the wearing of green (and in some cases orange) and then more drinking on March 17 has absolutely nothing to do with St. Patrick. What began as a religious holiday on which we remembered a man who converted the “pagans” in Ireland to Christianity has evolved into a day on which a lot of folks raise their blood alcohol level way beyond .08. You might say that the “pagans” have had the last word.

Initially, Patrick changed Irish culture. In these last years, secular culture has changed St. Patrick’s Day.

And that’s the way it always seems to go. For example, I bet more Forest Park residents ate a paczki on Fat Tuesday than received ashes the next day on Ash Wednesday. And the same is true for other holidays.

The most glaring example is, of course, Christmas. What began as a holy day on which Christians remembered the birth of Jesus in what amounted to a homeless shelter has been transformed into a month-long festival of lights, buying presents, songs about snowmen and chestnuts roasting on an open fire, and lots of drinking and eating. January becomes a time when we nurse our “hangover,” i.e. pay off our credit card bills and hit the health club to shed those extra pounds we put on the month before.

“Happy holidays” has replaced “merry Christmas” as the politically correct greeting to use when meeting friends and customers on Madison Street in December. Consumption has replaced religious devotion as the highest value as we close out the calendar year.

In fact Christmas has become an international holiday. I was in Tokyo at the end of November a few years ago. When I went to check out their miracle-mile equivalent called the Ginza, to my surprise I found Santa Clauses and snowmen hanging from the street lamps on that high-end commercial strip.

The same is true in Thailand. Every December, Christmas trees appear in stores, restaurants and hotels. It’s really strange to hear “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” and “Frosty the Snowman” played in Bangkok shopping malls when it’s 90 degrees outside, in a country that is 95% Buddhist.

In the midst of all of this religious deconstruction, it was striking to me how much attention the election of the new pope has received. He seems to be getting a thumbs up from even non-religious folk. All kinds of people seem to be attracted to his humility, to a guy who cooks his own meals and takes the bus to work.

I have to wonder if Pope Francis has touched something in us. I wonder if a lot of us are tired of defining success in terms of power, money and consumption and are getting in touch with a longing for meaning and purpose in our lives, which can’t be met by a promotion at work or our investment portfolios increasing in value or winning an election or even the success of the Blackhawks.

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