Corned beef and cabbage is not a traditional Irish dish.
I remember learning this fact with a mixture of bemusement and a kind of empty ache. My family is American, and in the sense of heritage very American: we are mutt combination from nearly every corner of Europe. Of all these lines, the one we talked about most growing up was the Irish. This came from my mother’s side, who grew up poor and so held on to more of the old country. The Irish came into where they lived, what work and class passed generation to generation, what they ate and drank on special days, and what stories they would tell of family trees. My father’s side, who made good in America, emphasized their very American-ness, shriving off any connection to their Teutonic roots. There is perhaps in this something of the prejudices of the second world war in this. Regardless, it was Irish pub songs I grew up singing, Irish beer I snuck sips of as a teen on St. Paddy’s day, and when we dreamed of going to ancestral homes, those homes were always the great, green island.
Cultural traditions flow from heritage, in much the same way religious traditions flow from our relation to God and other believers. We do not choose to be born into a heritage, and yet it is our choice to honor or to forget that connecting link to the history of humanity. We honor these traditions by participating and enacting the rituals connected with that heritage. For my family of Irish-Americans, that meant corned beef and cabbage on the plate, a round of pub songs sung among friends, and John Wayne in “The Quiet Man” on the television screen.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve felt the desire to add to the traditions around me: to write poetry to be read in Church, and limericks for the pub. Yet by adding, or not adding, to the traditions, I recognize that much of heritage and faith is a made-up thing. I could just as well begin learning German songs and teach the next generation of my family the nostalgia of schnitzel and strudel over bangers and mash. I am a Catholic convert, and as such have already chosen to leave the hymns, organizations, and history of my Protestant pedigree. In the very moment of making these choices of tradition, I feel the fragility of the thing I love enough to choose. The magic disappears if faith and family are utterly voluntary. Corned beef becomes the “Irish” dish eaten on St. Patrick’s Day, by my Protestant family.
My consolation is that the choices I have made, even the way I understand myself, has all been shaped by the expressions of tradition which surround us. My choice, in the end, becomes an act of affirming that tradition. Even the changes that happen, the new movies, activities, and foods which become a part of the tradition, are the development of that tradition throughout history. We gather under one flag, whether harp, or thistle, bulldog, or eagle, and take those traditions into the world as we can.
Our traditions of faith are older, slower, and thicker than the blood of family or the flags of heritage. Like all vast, ancient things, its movements are tectonic: the ground moves slowly, imperceptible until it grinds up against some other force which opposes it. We are all chosen, born to live within the traditions of the continent, or the kingdom, of God. We were chosen for this before birth, and humanity has been given this heritage since before there were tribes, peoples, clans, or cultures.
Today more than in most of the previous generations, we are experiencing the fragility, and the mutability, which happens when ancient traditions are brought to account in the present moment. How different mass might look, depending on which church one attends, or even at what time! The rituals remain, but their expression has changed languages, levels of formality, and in broader cultural importance. Like a great ship bemired in a tempest, it may be difficult for us to see what connects us to the faith of our parents, grandparents, and all generations back to when our King arrived to invite us back into the people of God. Is the bread we eat really traditional food in the kingdom of God? We may find ourselves in doubt.
And yet! In the midst of it all, there is Love. The reason for the traditions we pass down, the reason we invite others to mass, is precisely because we celebrate that which we were born to cherish. We find Love, who is God, at the center of the love of ritual, of tradition, of history, and of the ways we find to love who we are, where we are from, and where we are going. We go, and invite, others to mass precisely because we understand what we are really offering them, whether the after-service lunch serves corned beef, tacos, or falafel, the opportunity to come home. Home to their people, to our people, to the people of God who are all who believe, and express that belief in the rituals of our shared heritage.