In one sense, St. Patrick’s Day is a failure.
The holiday as we know it in America was promoted by activists to celebrate Irish culture, in order to fight prejudice against Irish immigrants. Today, many of us celebrate by going out drinking and acting out the very stereotypes the day was created to combat.
On the other hand, 150 years ago nativists in the U.S. were burning Irish Catholic churches to the ground. Today on St. Patrick’s Day, Americans of all backgrounds wear green, drink Guinness, and put on pins that say “Kiss me I’m Irish.” There’s something beautiful about that.
In recent years, holidays associated with various other immigrant groups have begun to gain mainstream acceptance, most notably Cinco de Mayo, which has followed a similar path as St. Patrick’s Day – started by activists to celebrate Mexican culture, embraced by people just looking for a good time.
Lunar New Year and Dia De Los Muertos are also well on their way.
When one culture’s holiday becomes everyone’s excuse to party, what’s gained and what’s lost? And how does it feel when it’s your holiday?
To find out, I go to a Chinese New Year party with no Chinese people and a Passover Seder with no Jewish people for this week’s episode of The Sporkful podcast. Plus, comedian Jenny Yang offers advice for marketing new holidays:
“We’re going to read from Exodus tonight,” explains Tiffany Wang, as she welcomes me to Gentile Passover, an annual gathering she and her sister, Charlene Wang de Chen, host.
“We don’t have a Haggada,” Tiffany continues, referring to the book Jews use as a guide at Passover Seder, or ritual meal, “but we know the Passover story because we grew up in a Christian household.”
This Gentile Passover tradition began 10 years ago. Charlene was living in Beijing and read about how President Obama was hosting a Passover in the White House. She decided she’d host one, too, which is no surprise if you know how she and Tiffany were raised.
They’re Chinese-American, but every St. Patrick’s Day their mom made corned beef, potatoes and cabbage.
“We love eating,” says Charlene, “and we just love learning more about cultures through their food traditions. That’s obviously the funnest way to learn about it.”
Charlene scrambled around Beijing to gather the symbolic foods needed for a Passover Seder – salt water for tears, bitter herbs for the bitterness of slavery, and of course, matzo (unleavened bread), because Jews were fleeing the Egyptians and didn’t have time for our bread to rise. (That last item required a few phone calls to obtain.)
The first Gentile Passover was a big success.
“Everyone was so down for it, on an occasion none of them traditionally celebrate, which I thought was awesome,” Charlene recalls. “Everyone was bringing this openness.”
When I joined last year’s Gentile Passover, I was the only Jewish person in the room. We were joined by Charlene’s husband, Tony Chen, Tiffany’s fiancé, and two friends, Tim Cotton and Anne-Laure Py.
They proudly showed me the two different types of matzo they had purchased, and served me a delicious cocktail made with Campari and Manischewitz, the latter being a Jewish ceremonial wine that is the best wine because it’s filled with sugar.
The cocktail was fantastic, and the menu looked promising. Tiffany and Charlene had prepared matzo ball soup and short ribs, which made me very happy, because I’ve long advocated replacing the more traditional brisket with short ribs at Passover and all year round.
There was a beautiful Seder plate, and even though I’m not especially religious myself, I was very impressed with the research and work they had done to respect the holiday’s customs.
I did cringe a bit when they told me they had rugelach, a Jewish pastry, for dessert. Most Jews would not serve rugelach at Passover because it contains leavened bread. Charlene and Tiffany knew that, but, they said, rugelach is delicious. I couldn’t argue with that.
We read the story of the Jews being freed from slavery in Egypt, as recounted in Exodus, and dinner was served. We skipped rituals like dipping parsley in salt water and putting bitter herbs on matzo. And that felt strange.
At my family’s Passover Seder, we use a Haggada written by my wife, Janie, that I love very much. But the part of it I know best is page 21. Because page 21 is where it says, “Dinner is served.” From the time we open that book I keep thinking, “Please get me to page 21!”
In other words, I’m often eager to rush through the rituals. At Gentile Passover, I found myself missing them. It turns out those traditions mean more to me than I realized.
And while the experience of watching people who aren’t Jewish observe their version of customs I grew up with was in some ways strange and unsettling, it was also beautiful.
I wondered about what my great-grandparents, who came to America from Eastern Europe, would think if they saw me celebrating Passover with two Chinese-American Christians, a Chinese-born Muslim, a Sri Lankan-American, and two white European Christians.
The meal itself was fantastic. The matzo balls were just the right combo of soft on the outside and firm inside, and the short ribs braised in charoset were savory and sweet, reaffirming my belief in their superiority over brisket.
One key Passover tradition is that you’re supposed to ask questions – big questions like “What’s the point of all this?” After the meal I asked everyone, when we celebrate other people’s holidays, what’s gained and what’s lost?
“We’re trying to understand other cultures, but in doing that and changing it, you dilute them,” says Charlene and Tiffany’s friend Tim. “A more pure and authentic Seder would be less accessible to me, who’s not Jewish. So this is more accessible to me, but it also does change it. So there’s a tension there. While it’s very positive that we learn all these things, I can see why some people get worried that if you do that to the final degree, it ceases to exist as its own tradition and it becomes this amorphous globalized thing that doesn’t really mean anything.”
“Something I’ve thought about for a long time is, How Chinese are my kids going to be?” adds Tiffany. “And the answer is, less than me. And I’m less than my parents. I’m going to marry a Sri Lankan man. My children are going to be Chinese and Sri Lankan, and very American at the same time. So there will be a dilution of our culture. That can feel like something you can mourn. But then whatever we create from that may also be something new and exciting.”
Dan Pashman hosts the James Beard Award-nominated food podcast The Sporkful, which this week features the episode “Other People’s Holidays.” It’s available in Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you listen.