Alcoholidays In America: ¡Viva El Tequila Julep! | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Alcoholidays In America: ¡Viva El Tequila Julep!

America is not a two-party country — it's a multiparty extravaganza.

We turn every possible pause from work into a party: New Year's Day, the Super Bowl, Mardi Gras, St. Patrick's Day, Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Labor Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Eve.

And on Saturday, many Americans will play overtime by reveling in a pair of nationwide celebrations — Cinco de Mayo and the Kentucky Derby. Establishments everywhere will be mashing up Mexico and the Bluegrass State.

* In Portland, Maine, this weekend, barkeeps at Bull Feeney's will be slinging $3 drinks that include bourbon margaritas and tequila juleps.

* In Minneapolis, the Northstar Bartenders Guild is thinking along the same cross-cultural lines, promoting a Kentucky Derby Fiesta — with Southern-style victuals and tacos and encouraging folks to wear fancy spring Derby hats and Mexican sombreros.

* In San Francisco, the Elixir club will host a soiree titled Cinco de Derby, showcasing "seersuckers y sombreros."

Though the United States may be in economic chaos and cultural disarray, the states still know how to unite for a party.

But how is American culture affected by the increasing popularity of the so-called alcoholidays — especially Cinco de Mayo and St. Patrick's Day, widely celebrated by people who have no ties to the traditions they spring from? Do these galas really glue us together, or do they dilute our sense of unity?

Arin Damar, a recent college graduate who has worked as a bartender at more than one Washington, D.C., establishment, says we should celebrate the celebrations. Responsibly, of course.

National shindigs "link so many people together in the same place," Damar says. "People bring culture with them when they immigrate, transporting celebration rituals as well as language. Gathering to commemorate a holiday like Cinco seems almost like a prideful celebration of the uniqueness of our diversity — that we can retain our roots while simultaneously being a 'good' American. That's something everybody can take part in."

And cash in on. In the tradition of the commercialization of Christmas and Thanksgiving, alcoholidays offer boundless opportunities for marketing, promotion and good old-fashioned American moneymaking.

Debauchery And Bad Behavior

Academics who study rites and rituals see a pattern. The Americanized versions of Cinco de Mayo, St. Patrick's Day and other nationwide wingdings "have taken on common forms — food, decorative objects, music and performances, colors and clothing," says Diane Ashton, a professor of religion studies at Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J. These national bashes "share a common upbeat meaning that emphasizes good feelings among family, friends and community groups."

As the nation has become more diverse, there often seem to be fewer and fewer moments that we can share en masse.

Though the ethnic and religious events being celebrated may be different, Ashton says, the let-your-hair-down to-dos have morphed into common, easy-to-recognize — and therefore, simple-to-celebrate — American rituals. And, of course, Ashton says, each of the newfangled festivals "offers goods to be advertised and sold, and so each is marketable."

That marketability, says Matthew Dennis, author of Red, White and Blue Letter Days: An American Calendar, is at the heart of the hearty parties. "These days are so highly commercialized and generic," Dennis says, "they're largely an excuse for a party."

He continues, "All of this has been facilitated substantially by the producers of beer and other celebratory foods and drinks. Even when non-Irish people wear green, their impulse, I think, is just to join in the fun, not make any cultural or political statement."

There are some exceptions, Dennis adds. Certain holy days and ethnic celebrations do take on real and reverent meaning in certain American communities. But he thinks the boom in popularity of nationwide holidays has more to do with advertising and consumer culture than celebrating our diversity. "Note also the increased popularity of Halloween as an adult — rather than merely child-centered — holiday," Dennis adds, "especially as an occasion to throw a party and drink more heavily and eat nonhealthy foods."

The drinking component concerns many people, including Mothers Against Drunk Driving. On its website, the group offers some safety tips for tipplers and their friends.

For many Americans, the alcoholidays are relatively free of the religious or familial obligations of traditional fetes, such as Thanksgiving and Christmas.

In fact, debauchery and bad behavior are common themes of those toasting Cinco de Mayo and St. Patrick's Day, according to Paul Montoya, who grew up in Honduras and worked for the past couple of years as a bartender at a Florida beach bar. So are "insensitivity and racism toward the very holidays they believe they are celebrating."

Ho Ho Ho

Which brings us to the real meaning of Cinco de Mayo. The annual May 5 commemoration in Mexico glorifies the Mexican Army's defeat of the French at the Battle of Puebla in 1862. If the French had won, some historians posit, they might have then helped the South defeat the North in the American Civil War — changing the course of Western civilization.

So arguably, America, with its multicultural influences, has every right to celebrate Cinco de Mayo. And every other holiday as well, including those not yet exploited.

Montoya now lives in San Francisco. The people of that city, he says, "love holidays so much that they decided there weren't enough and invented some of their own" — including SantaCon, during which thousands of people dress as Santa Claus and pub-crawl through the city. According to the SantaCon website, the bacchanal of bearded bar-hoppers has filtered out to more than 230 locations in 33 countries around the world.

How long until other celebrations spread across the land? Let's not forget Indian Independence Day in August. Mexican Independence Day in September. And the Chinese New Year, whenever it falls.

Pass the Tsingtao.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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