What an alive city Philadelphia is. There are always half a dozen things going on at the same time.
Today there was a bizarre clash of cultures, with Center City being jammed to capacity with green-clad Irish folks celebrating their Patron Saint, St Patrick, whose feast is on Tuesday. Having just had a hip replacement last Tuesday, I was hoping to have my usual very short bus journey to and from St Clement’s. But no way! Buses were rerouted to the most improbable routes, and eventually I had to take a cab both ways. My benevolence towards the Irish crowds was much tested by the time I got home.
However, an hour or so after returning home, a quite different kind of procession wound its way past my apartment. It was a procession to mark the end of the Chinese New Year, and was made up of the most colorful costumes. There were golden and scarlet dragons, a complete Temple on wheels, fearsome giants on stilts (unless there are some extremely tall Chinese guys in Philly), marching bands and lots of girls in ribbon-bedecked dresses. This was all accompanied by the beating of drums and the clashing of cymbals.
Reflecting on the two celebrations, I was far more in tune with the Chinese one than the Irish one. In the latter, there was no sign of St Patrick or a Catholic priest (though they may have been one somewhere else in the procession). The people were often dressed as red-haired green-clad leprechauns (which is an Irish fairy). It all seemed very secular. Yet Patrick wasn’t secular: he took the Irish by storm, making them give up their heathen ways and turn to Christ. This is hinted at by the legend that he drove all the snakes out of Ireland, though a priest friend of mine said once “Aye, he certainly did, and they all went to New York City and became policemen”! (And no, it was not the late Canon John Andrew – he would never have said Aye”.
The Chinese procession was much more clearly religious, though a religion rather different from my Anglicanism. They beat drums and clashed cymbals and sounded gongs to keep devils away from their homes. The temple was full of incense and was clearly more than just a stage prop. And come to think of it, I have seen very similar processions through the streets of Spanish and Italian towns and villages. Once I was invited by the parish priest of San Colombano near Milan to follow the head of the saint (in a beautiful jeweled casket) though the streets of his village on that saint’s day, and the noise and the costumes were as joyfully religious as today’s Chinese procession. Interestingly, St Columbanus was one of the first Irish missionaries to move out from his island to help the missionary work in Italy. But I’ll tell you about that great day when his festival comes round again.