Did you know that the first St. Patrick’s Day celebration was held in the US, not Ireland? Or that the holiday was originally associated with the color blue? After a long winter, St. Patrick’s Day is a welcome sign of spring, and a day filled with parades, Shamrock Shakes, and a whole lot of beer, but what exactly are we celebrating?
The story of St. Patrick’s Day begins in 5th century Britain with a boy named Maewyn Succat. At the age of 16, he was kidnapped by Irish pirates and enslaved as a shepherd in Ireland for 6 years. According to his autobiography, a voice came to him in his dreams one night during his captivity telling him that he would soon depart for his home country. Shortly after, another voice told him that his ship was ready. Taking the advice of the voice, Succat escaped from his captors and fled to the coast, where he found a ship of pirates that was just departing. After pleading with them to let him sail aboard their ship, they agreed, and after 3 days they reached Britain. Back home, another voice beckoned him to help the people of Ireland by returning to the island as a missionary. Succat was not an active believer in God at the time of his kidnapping, but he wrote in his autobiography that his time spent in captivity was critical to his spiritual development. He took his vows as a priest, adopted the Christian name Patrick, and returned to Ireland in 432 AD, where he would spend the rest of his life trying to convert the Irish to Christianity. St. Patrick died on March 17, 461 and was largely forgotten; however, mythologies grew around Patrick and later he was honored as the patron saint of Ireland.
A popular myth surrounding St. Patrick is that he drove the snakes away from Ireland. While it is true that snakes don’t exist on the island today, they never did. Ireland is surrounded by icy waters, making it too cold for snakes to migrate from Britain or anywhere else. The story that St. Patrick banished snakes from the Emerald Isle is most likely a metaphor for Patrick cleansing the island of paganism, since snakes often represent evil in literature.
The shamrock is a universal symbol for St. Patty’s Day, but why? According to legend, St. Patrick used a shamrock as a metaphor for the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), teaching his followers that 3 individuals could be part of the same body. Soon, his parishioners began wearing shamrocks to his church services. The shamrock was a sacred plant in ancient Ireland because it symbolized spring, and by the 17th century, it had become an Irish symbol of national pride. The Irish, as well as many other nationalities, have long considered the shamrock to be a symbol of good luck.
Anyone who has even the slightest idea of what St. Patrick’s Day is knows that it’s one of the biggest drinking holidays. On average, the world consumes about 5.5 million pints of Guinness a day, but on St. Patrick’s Day, the world consumes 13 million pints of the Irish beer. That’s a whole lot of drunken people on one day. So how exactly did a holiday honoring a Christian saint turn into a huge beerfest? Legend has it that St. Patrick was served whiskey by an innkeeper who poured the glass considerably less than full. To teach the innkeeper a lesson, he told him that a monstrous devil lived in his cellar that fed on the dishonesty of the innkeeper, and in order to banish the devil, he must change his ways. When St. Patrick returned, he found that the innkeeper was generously filling patron’s glasses to overflowing. He and the innkeeper then went down to the cellar to find the devil emaciated from the innkeeper’s generosity, to which St. Patrick proclaimed that everyone should have a drink of the “hard stuff” on his feast day.
In some ways, America is more Irish than Ireland itself. According to the US Census, in 2012, 34.1 million residents identified themselves as having Irish ancestry. This is 7 times the total population of Ireland, which is 4.6 million. A St. Patrick’s Day tradition that began in America is eating corned beef and cabbage. While cabbage has long been a traditional Irish food, corned beef only began to be associated with the holiday at the turn of the 20th century. Irish immigrants living in New York City were so poor that they could not afford the traditional dish of Irish bacon on St. Patrick’s Day, so they substituted it with corned beef to save money. Other current St. Patrick’s Day celebrations started in America as well. Until the 1970s, St. Patrick’s Day was a minor religious holiday in Ireland. The holiday as we know it was basically invented in America by Irish Americans. The first St. Patrick’s Day parade was held in 1737 in Boston and was organized by the Charitable Irish Society. New York City followed in 1762, and it is now the largest St. Patrick’s Day parade in the world.
St. Patrick’s Day is a holiday filled with history, mythology, and plenty of drunken fun. What more could you ask of a holiday? While celebrating the Emerald Isle this year, remember to quote an Irish toast before taking your first drink: “May your blessings outnumber the shamrocks that grow, and may trouble avoid you wherever you go.” Cheers!
- Confession of St. Patrick. Christian Classics Ethereal Library website. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/patrick/confession.v.html.
- History of St. Patrick’s Day. The History Channel website. http://www.history.com/topics/st-patricks-day/history-of-st-patricks-day/videos/history-of-st-patricks-day?m=528e38969e64d#.
- Lewis T. 5 fun facts about St. Patrick’s Day. Live Science website. March 17, 2013. http://www.livescience.com/27957-st-patricks-day-5-facts.html.
- Roach J. St. Patrick’s Day 2011: facts myths, and traditions. National Geographic website. March 16, 2011. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2011/03/110316-saint-patricks-day-2011-march-17-facts-ireland-irish-nation.
- Trowbridge Filippone P. St. Patrick’s Day history. About website. http://homecooking.about.com/od/foodhistory/a/stpatdayhistory.htm.