March 17 has become a day of wearing green, drinking green beer and chasing leprechauns, and we call it St. Patrick’s Day. Who is St. Patrick and why do we do celebrate him in this way?
Who is St. Patrick?
St. Patrick is the Patron Saint of Ireland. Although not Irish born, St. Patrick is credited with bringing Christianity to the Irish people. There is also legend that St. Patrick drove all of the snakes out of Ireland and drowned them in the sea. Although this sounds very heroic and believable due to the fact that there aren’t any snakes in Ireland, it is truly just a legend. There never were any real slithering snakes in Ireland, however, the snake is a symbol of Paganism. St. Patrick converted “the snakes” to Christianity and in that story you have the birth of the snake legend.
How did the holiday start?
March 17 has long been St. Patrick’s Day, but when did it begin?
St. Patrick’s Day began as a religious feast in the 9th or 10th century and is held on March 17, the day that marks the death of St. Patrick in the year 461AD. The feast day commemorating the work and life and St. Patrick falls during the Christian season of Lent, but allows for a break in the Lenten fasting and has long been a day of feasting, music and dancing. Dishes typically found at an Irish feast are sheperd’s pie, lamb stew, clocannon (mashed potatoes and cabbage), corned beef and cabbage and champ (mashed potatoes and scallions).
The holiday is now marked by parades throughout the United States. The first St. Patrick’s Day parade took place in New York City in 1762 when Irish soldiers serving in the English army began marching through the streets playing Irish music to celebrate their heritage while away from home. The idea was a catching one and quickly parades sprung up all over the country as a way for Irish immigrants to celebrate their roots. Today, the New York City St. Patrick’s Day parade is the oldest and largest civilian parade in the United States.
Holiday Symbols and Traditions
When thinking of St. Patrick’s day several images come to mind; the shamrock, sneaky little leprechauns, lots of beer and the color green. Do any of these things have anything to do with St. Patrick at all?
Yes, the shamrock is very closely tied to St. Patrick thanks to a popular myth that he used the three-leaf clover to explain the Holy Trinity (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Sprit) to the people of Ireland during their conversion from their Pagan beliefs to Christianity. Although not tied to St. Patrick, the leprechaun is part of Irish legend. As the myth goes, leprechauns (closely related to fairies) all have a pot of gold which they hide from the world. If you manage to catch a leprechaun his gold is yours, but leprechauns are very tricky and great at escaping and staying out of sight.
Aside from the traditional feasting, not much of the American St. Patrick’s Day celebration has any connection to St. Patrick or to Ireland. Although beers such as Guiness (very popular on St. Patrick’s Day) originated in Ireland, drinking was not part of the original celebration of the holiday. In fact, the pubs in Ireland used to be closed on March 17 as an order of the law. It was not until the 1970s that pubs began to be open for the holiday.
Although loosely related, there are many stories as to why there is so much green around March 17. Some say that green is the color of Spring and shamrocks, others say it is because Ireland is considered “the emerald isle” and others simply that green is one of the three colors on the Irish flag. No matter what you believe, green is definitely a huge part of St. Patrick’s Day in the United States, so much so that Chicago dyes its river green every year and people have taken to pinching people not wearing the color on March 17.
Irish or not, regardless of your reason for celebrating, have fun, be merry, and most of all, be safe.
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