Monday, March 16, 2009

Happy St. Patrick's, er, I mean Evacuation Day!

March 17 is, of course, an unofficial holiday for millions of Americans. Except in Boston, that is, where March 17 an official holiday. For out-of-towners, I kid you not. 

So wait, the city takes off to celebrate St. Patrick? Well, not exactly. It just so happens that March 17 marks Evacuation Day--the date in 1776 when the British troops gave up Boston and set sail for Nova Scotia after George Washington's men seized the high ground of Dorchester Heights (in present-day South Boston). 

Well, then, it must just be a coincidence that a civic holiday falls on St. Patrick's Day, right? Surely the city must have had a long tradition of taking off on March 17 to commemorate the evacuation? Well, not exactly. March 17 did not become an official holiday until 1901--a full 125 years after the Redcoats set sail. By that time, of course, the massive wave of Irish immigration in the wake of the Great Famine had made Boston one of the most Irish cities in the world. 

Hmmm. Well, I'm sure it was just a coincidence. 

No doubt, though, that many who emigrated from the Old Sod had no problem with this trinity that would make St. Patrick's Irish eyes smile: a day off, a chance to have a few pints of Guinness, and the celebration of giving the British the boot. (St. Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland. The colonists drove the British troops out of Boston. It's all the same theme anyway.) 

At least for the first official Evacuation Day holiday, the city put on its game face. The streets of South Boston were bedecked in red, white, and blue bunting; Old Glory; and portraits of George Washington for that initial commemoration. The Boston Globe reported in its March 18, 1901 issue: "St. Patrick's Day and Evacuation Day never seem to get in each others way." Well, the same can be said of the two holidays today--in the same sense that the Patriots and the Detroit Lions never get in each other's way when battling for NFL supremacy. These days, green, orange, and white are the tricolors most likely to be seen on Southie's streets on March 17, and the revelers filling the neighborhood pubs probably won't be raising a pint in honor of Henry Knox. 

It's somehow fitting in this intertwining of holidays that Dorchester Heights, with its commanding view of Boston and the harbor, is now in the heart of Boston's Irish enclave. The annual St. Patrick's Day Parade passes right by the mount, which is now topped by a 115-f00t monument that was completed in 1902. For those who want to start their, er, Evacuation Day frolicking early (and earn that day off with a clean conscious), head up to the Dorchester Heights National Historic Site for the commemorative exercises at the 233rd Evacuation Day Celebration at 10 AM

No comments: