It’s St. Boniface Day!


One man’s quest to make it a national holiday

By MELISSA MUSICK NUSSBAUM

As I write this column for the June issue of Celebration, my local Catholic Charities is putting the finishing touches on our annual St. Patrick’s Day Gala. The ballroom will be filled with partying Catholics and Protestants and Jews and None-of-the-Aboves. Every American knows about the Memorial of St. Patrick on March 17, and most Americans keep some element of it, right down to a bit of green adorning a suit lapel or dress collar. (The liturgical calendar has it as an optional memorial. Tell that to the good people of Chicago.)

Perhaps we believe the Irish deserve to have green beer--or a green river--once a year because they are the largest immigrant group in the American Catholic church. Except that the largest immigrant group in the American Catholic Church is not the Irish. It is, in fact, the Germans. And the patron saint of Germany is St. Boniface, whose memorial is June 5.

So why isn’t June 5, like March 17, a de facto national holiday? My husband, German on both sides of his family as far back as anyone can trace, would like to know, even as he works in his office to establish and promote St. Boniface Day observances. (I should point out that St. Boniface day is not taking the 11th floor of the Wells Fargo Tower, or anywhere else, for that matter, by storm.) My guess, as I tell my husband, has to do with our perceptions of each ethnic group: The Irish are thought of as entertaining and amusing, while the Germans are thought of as industrious and, not so much amusing, as authoritarian.

Maybe revelers fear that a St. Boniface Day would involve mass sidewalk sweeping and group window washing or all-night-laundry-folding-closet-cleaning parties. They imagine the cries, “It’s St. Boniface Day! Let’s all pay our bills! Let’s weed the gardens! Let’s haul out the trash! You missed a spot!”

Maybe they are right to fear.

I remind my husband of his dear great aunt, a Little Sister of the Poor, whose decline involved dementia-related depression. The sign of something serious afoot was not what most of us non-Germans think of as a classic symptom of depression. (Dementia? Perhaps.) Her sisters found her one night down in the laundry, obsessively ironing. She would not stop, could not stop, until every sheet and washcloth and article of underwear had been ironed.

I remind him further that it was really only the late hour that distinguished her behavior from the normal activities of all the women in his family.

But be of good cheer. First, Boniface isn’t a native German. He was born in England, right next door to Ireland, where he was a Benedictine abbot named Winfred (or Winfrith, hard to say which is worse for the cause of a national saint’s day in the American heartland.)

Boniface left his abbey in 719 for Germany, the first missionary to that country, got a new name and spent the rest of his life converting the Germanic tribes to Christianity. One of his ongoing battles involved convincing the people that trees, though made by God, are not gods. The story is told that, in front of a crowd threatening to become a mob, he took an axe to the Oak of Thor, a sacred tree in Geismar. The tree fell into four parts, in the shape of a cross, but Boniface was left standing. It was a most effective homily, and Germans from all over became followers of Christ.

Then Boniface proved that, his Irish birth be damned, he was a real German after all, because he did a very thrifty thing. He gathered up the remains of the oak and used the wood to build the first German Christian church. (My husband loves that part of the story. Use it up. Wear it out. Do without, und so weiter.)

Boniface became the bishop of the repurposed Oak of Thor. Happily, unlike Patrick with the snakes of Ireland, Boniface did not drive the trees from Germany. He just harvested them and used the lumber to build more churches.

Unhappily, some angry pagans later killed Bishop Boniface by stabbing him as he read the Gospels.

Boniface is the patron saint of Germany and--here comes the good news for my husband’s plan to make this day a national holiday--of brewers everywhere. So pour yourself a beer (maybe a nice Warsteiner or Carlsberg, or even a Shiner Bock or a Sierra Nevada Kellerweis, no dye of any color, please, we’re all Germans today) and let’s get this party started!

But, remember, don’t drink and drive. If you do feel a need to get in your car, just wipe off the dashboard and clean out the cup holders and vacuum under the seats. And throw away those gum wrappers. Who raised you, anyway?

Then? Maybe go inside and do a little ironing. St. Boniface will bless you for it.

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