We newcomers to the nation should never delude ourselves that we are created equal with the Thirteen Original. For one thing, we have no claim on Evacuation Day – no parades, no patriotic speeches, no hoopla. Truth to tell, New Yorkers and Bostonians seem disinclined to invite us to the table at which they observe the departure of the Brits from their fair cities.
For the past century New Yorkers have pretty much merged the celebration of Evacuation Day (November 25) with Thanksgiving, That until a flurry when comedienne Sarah Vowell raised the flag for New York’s Evacuation Day on the Jon Stewart show in 2011. Tempest in a teapot, so to speak.
Evacuation Day in Boston is a whole other story. As destiny, or divine providence, would have it, the Brits quietly departed Boston on the Feast of St. Patrick, March 17, 1776. And thereby hangs a tale…
The records show that Bostonians’ first observance of March 17 as the Feast of St. Patrick took place in 1737. Among the many accounts of that momentous occasion, my favorite is one written by Marie Coady in 2003. Coady describes that first St. Patrick’s Day Parade in the new world as a spontaneous event:
Seems the members of the newly formed Charitable Irish Society were meeting in a local tavern on March 17, the very day the Irish in their homeland were celebrating St. Patrick’s contribution to Irish society. So they decided to mark the occasion by parading through the streets of downtown Boston and encouraging anyone in their path to join them.
The Charitable Irish Society of Boston was founded, Coady writes, “to cultivate a spirit of unity and harmony among all resident Irish and their descendants in the Massachusetts Colony and to advocate socially and morally the interests of the Irish people and their cultural heritage.” They were also dedicated “to alleviate suffering and to aid such of its members or other worthy recipients as by the vicissitudes of fortune might be deserving of its charity. In fact, the Charitable Irish Society lives on as the oldest Irish Society in America.
The tradition of the St. Patrick’s Day parade on the streets of Boston was an honored tradition by the time the Redcoats arrived forty years later. In 1775, after the Battle of Lexington and Concord, British troops retreated to Boston where the Continental Army, commanded by General George Washington, held them besieged for eleven months. After a lengthy stalemate, Washington and the British Commander General William Howe reached an agreement that the British would not burn the city on condition that Washington’s men would allow the Redcoats safe passage out of the Boston harbor. On March 17, 1776, the British Army and 1100 Loyalist civilians sailed for Nova Scotia.
There is one possibly apocryphal story that Washington, aware of the St. Patrick’s Day observance, specified that anyone wishing to pass through Continental lines would give the password “Boston,” to which the reply would be “St Patrick.” Whether or not it’s gospel truth, it’s a great and enduring story.
It was not until March 17, 1901, that the Mayor of Boston marked the 125th anniversary of the Brits’ departure by declaring Evacuation Day a city holiday.
To commemorate the first official Evacuation Day, 100,000 special medals were presented to the city’s children. City workers were given a paid day off and schools were closed. Some critics did suggest that the declaration of Evacuation Day was a response to objections to the city’s tradition of celebrating a religious holiday. Others agreed that the Match 17 Evacuation Day holiday coincided nicely with the tradition of St. Patrick’s Day. In any event, the dual church/state holiday has continued without interruption for the past century plus.
Though Evacuation Day lacks the lilt and panache of St. Patrick’s Day, it works for Bostonians. For the rest of the world, Lá Fhéile Pádraig Sona Daoibh!