Saturday, March 17, 2012

St Patrick's Day, religious taboos, and food

Twenty years ago today I was standing in the rain, shivering and drenched as wild gusts of wind blew drizzle up into my face, across my numbed fingers, and down inside the tin whistle clamped to my mouth. I was ten years old, dressed in my primary school marching band's green uniform and standing in formation with the rest of the children, about to march throughout my home town playing folk tunes as part of our St Patrick's Day parade. Parents and locals gamely lined the streets in scarves and raincoats to cheer us on through the squalls.

Yet we children did look forward to the day, largely because of a curious Irish convention that the Christian fast of Lent didn't count on St Patrick's Day. For that one happy day in the middle of Lent we were allowed to relapse and scoff sweets and biscuits and sugary drinks.

For non-Christian readers: Lent is a religious period over 40 days preceding Easter Sunday, commemorating Christ's 40 days of fasting in the desert, and over which many modern Christians hold some kind of fast.

In the past (and I gather in some Christian communities still) this fast was pretty severe but by the time I was growing up in the 1980s and 90s it really just meant not eating sweets or biscuits - hard enough as a young lad that the St Patrick's Day dispensation was dearly welcomed.

I've kept on the Lentan tradition and am eating noticeably healthier today (resisting a St Patrick's Day relapse) than I was a few weeks ago. The fast, so hard to handle as a child, is now actually pretty easy and I feel no temptation to break it. I go through my days eating fairly well and finding this easy. Why?

We are, I think, back to taboos. The struggle for self-control really all happened when I was a child, and when the issue was framed in a religious context. Fasting at Lent was depicted as a religious duty and, in my monoreligious area, everyone seemed to be doing it so there was no reason to question it. By sanctifying the fast, the element of personal choice was reduced: it must be done, therefore it is done. Now I feel no compulsion when I pass by the confectionery I would normally be drawn towards, because it is simply out, taboo until Easter Sunday.

I have touched on taboos a few times recently with the idea that some taboos might actually be healthy, stabilising forces for society. The longer democracies go without coups and civil wars, for example, the more entrenched they become and the stronger the taboo on seizing power through violence grows. The abandonment of norms and taboos accompanied the collapse of republicanism in Ancient Rome.

I see the difficulty many people have in regulating their diets, and compare this with the relative ease with which I stay off sugary snacks for Lent. Of course I will return to bad habits with Easter Sunday, but perhaps there may be a way for people to regulate their own diets and lifestyle through similar taboos, though I'm not sure how it would be applied. The taboo needs to be unconditional and sort of natural, inevitable, with clearly-defined borders. Once there is a kind of absolute commitment that the individual doesn't even think of questioning, it may be a lot easier to control one's desires.

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