Every year on March 17, people all over the world don green garb, take to the streets for Irish pride parades, and drain mugs of green Guinness in celebration of St. Patrick’s Day. But who exactly was St. Patrick, and why do we celebrate for an entire day in his honor?
Who was St. Patrick?
St. Patrick is the most recognizable patron saint of Ireland (of which there are three). However, Patrick was not Irish. He hailed from Britain in the 4th century, which was part of the Roman Empire at the time. As a teenager, he was kidnapped by Irish raiders, and held hostage for six years, during which time he came to appreciate the spirit of his Pagan captors. As an adult and an ordained Catholic priest, Patrick returned to Ireland to bring Christianity to the Irish people. Legend has it that Patrick used the three leaves of the shamrock to educate them about the Catholic holy trinity.
Why do we wear green?
It is said that blue was originally the color most closely associated with St. Patrick. However, due to Ireland’s nickname, “The Emerald Isle”, the color of the shamrock, and the green of the Irish flag, modern practice is to wear green. Some Irish still follow the tradition in which Catholics wear green and Protestants wear orange, since these colors represent the two religious sects on the country’s flag. The middle white stripe is said to represent the peace between the two following a long history of conflict between the two cultures.
Why do we celebrate?
The feast of St. Patrick is a Roman Catholic holiday that has been observed since the ninth or 10th century by the Irish. However, the first St. Patrick’s Day parade occurred not in Ireland, but in New York City. Furthermore, the parade was made up of Irish members of the English military. Over the next several years, many Irish-American groups held annual parades that featured bagpipes and drums. Eventually, in 1848, several of these groups in NYC joined together to hold the first official New York City St. Patrick’s Day parade, which to this day is the world’s oldest civilian parade.
Traditions and Meaning
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the sudden flood of poor, uneducated Irish Catholic immigrants into the United States was not greeted fondly. The largely Protestant population looked down on them due to their foreign religious beliefs and unfamiliar accents. However, as their numbers grew, these immigrants realized that, with their common beliefs, they formed a unique political voting bloc (dubbed “the green machine”), and suddenly their annual St. Patrick’s day parades became the target for politicians. President Harry S. Truman attended the 1948 NYC parade, a proud moment for many Irish-Americans.
Those who observe the holiday all over the world practice a variety of traditions. Aside from wearing green and shamrocks, many choose to dine on traditional Irish fare. Corned beef, cabbage, potatoes, soda bread, and Irish beers are all favorite dishes. In Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day is a national public holiday, and a weeklong St. Patrick’s Festival is held annually.