AT THE AGE OF SIXTEEN, the Romano-Briton Saint Patrick was kidnapped by raiders. Sold into slavery in Ireland, for six years he herded pigs. Though he made his escape, he was commanded in a dream to return and preach the gospel. At Tara in Meath he confronted the high-king, Laoghaire, on Easter eve in the year 432. There the Saint lit sacred candles against the pagan fires, had great battles with wizards, and preached amidst the general carousing. He drove out Ireland's snakes, and converted the people to Christianity. His feast day is celebrated on March 17th.

In Italy, from ancient times, the indigenous god Liber corresponded to the Greek god of wine, Dionysus. His wife, Libera, corresponded to the Greek Persephone. Like Dionysus, Liber enjoyed both a rural and an urban festival. The country celebrations were held, with unrestrained merriment, at the time of grape-gathering and wine-making. The city festival was held in Rome on the 17th of March, and was called Liberalia. Autumn's casks of wine were opened, and old women with wreaths of ivy in their hair sold honey cakes to passers-by. Boys who had come of age took their toga virilis, and offered sacrifices on the Capitol.

Side-by-side with the public celebration, a secret worship, the Bacchanalia, found its way to Rome and thence to the whole of the nation. The rites, celebrated by both men and women, were accompanied by the most shameless excesses, and in 180 BC were put down, with unsparing ferocity, by a decree of the senate.

These old festivals are remarkably difficult to stamp out.

March 17, 1994