It’s that time of year again. The world is turning green. Green like the Emerald City, the summer leaves and of course, green like the Irish. It’s St Patrick’s Day, and it’s taking over. Where ever you go you might come across green themed parades, people in green stumbling out of Irish bars, and maybe even people doing Irish jigs on the side of the road. But what is St Patrick’s Day about? Why do we celebrate it? Who was St Patrick?
St Patrick was the patron saint and national apostle of Ireland who lived during the fifth century. He is credited with bringing Christianity to the Irish people. The most well-known legend of St Patrick is that he explained the Holy Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) using the three leaves of a native Irish clover (the shamrock). St Patrick was not the first to bring Christianity to Ireland, however it is said he encountered the Druids at Tara and abolished their pagan rites. It is said Patrick converted the warrior chiefs and princes before baptizing them and thousands of their subjects in the “Holy Wells”.
Legend claims St Patrick was also the one to rid Ireland of snakes. In old pagan religions, the symbol of serpent snakes were common and often worshipped, therefore it is said driving the snakes from Ireland was symbolic of ending pagan practice. While it is true there are no snakes in Ireland, there is no evidence to suggest snakes were present in Ireland before St Patrick abolished paganism.
St Patrick died on March 17, 461 and retained the reputation as the principal champion of Irish Christianity.
The Beginnings of St. Patrick’s Day Celebrations
Since the 9th or 10th century, people in Ireland began observing the Roman Catholic feast day of St Patrick on the anniversary of his death. Since the holiday began in Ireland, it is believed that as the Irish spread out across the world, they took the celebrations with them.
However it wasn’t until 1762 when the first big observance of St Patrick’s day occurred outside of Ireland with a parade honoring the holiday. The parade was held in New York City to help the Irish soldiers serving in the English military to reconnect with their Irish roots and other Irish citizens. Over the next 35 years, Irish-Americans began to celebrate their roots more prompting the rise of Irish societies such as the Hibernian Society and the Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick who would all hold separate annual Irish parades before eventually uniting their individual parades in 1848 to create one official New York City St Patrick’s Day.
The color green
St Patrick’s Day has been long been associated with St Patrick’s Day, but did you know originally the St Patrick’s color was blue? However over the years, the color green has slowly replaced the blue and grown to be the predominant color of the Irish. Shamrocks are regularly worn which is in recognition of St Patrick using the Shamrock to explain Christianity. The color of green is also said to represent Ireland’s lush green farmlands.
Celebrations of St Patrick’s Day
St Patrick’s Day has come to be associated with all things Irish. For those who celebrate the holiday for its intended meaning, St Patrick’s Day is a day for spiritual observance and renewal.
Traditionally, Irish families would attend church in the morning and celebrate in the afternoon by dancing, drinking and having a feast. The usual rules for Lent of being unable to eat meat were waived and people would have the traditional Irish meal of bacon and cabbage. However, once the official parade was launched in the United States, the day quickly became a recognized day of celebration throughout America, and then eventually throughout the world.
The biggest observance of St Patrick’s Day remains, of course, to be in Ireland. Almost all businesses, with the exception of restaurants and pubs, close on March 17th. As it is a religious holiday, many Irish attend Mass to offer their prayers for missionaries worldwide before the serious celebrations begin. Parades and festivities are held all throughout Ireland including at Downpatrick where St Patrick is rumored to be buried.
In the mid-1990s, the government in Ireland decided to use the day to promote Ireland and its culture, therefore began a festival which has slowly grown to be a five day event. The national festival now ranks amongst the greatest celebrations in the world and creates a strong atmosphere of enthusiasm and excitement throughout the country.
In some areas of the United States, you could think you’ve walked straight into Ireland during St Patrick’s Day celebrations. While it is not a legal public holiday anywhere in America, it is still widely recognized and celebrated. Big cities and small towns throughout the country celebrate with parades, wearing green, playing Irish music, eating Irish food and of course consuming copious amounts of alcohol. Children are able to watch the parade and can enjoy crafts, coloring and games all with an Irish theme.
Chicago takes celebrations to the next level by dyeing the Chicago River green each year. This tradition began in 1962 when city pollution-control workers dyed the river green as a means of tracing illegal sewage discharges and realized the dye could be a unique way to celebrate St Patrick’s Day. Now the city releases 40 pounds of green vegetable dye each year and turns the river green for several hours.
Canada hosts one of the longest-running St Patrick’s Day parades in North America. The parade in Montreal has been running since 1824. Quebec City recently returned their St Patrick’s Day parade which ran from 1827 to 1926 before an 84 year absence while Toronto celebrate with a large parade in the city’s downtown area. While some groups, particularly Guinness, have lobbied to make St Patrick’s Day a public holiday in Canada, so far only the province of Newfoundland and Labrador recognize St Patrick’s Day as a provincial holiday.
Celebrations in Great Britain are widespread. Before her death, Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother used to present bowls of shamrock to members of the Irish Guards, which is a regiment in the British Army consisting of soldier’s from the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. The Irish Guards continue to wear the shamrock on St Patrick’s Day. The Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church continue to observe the religious holiday as a feast day while cities throughout England and Scotland celebrate with parades, festivals and cultural events.
Japan and South Korea hold numerous parades and festivities which are spread across the entire month of March, and the tiny island of Montserrat in the Caribbean recognize St Patrick’s Day as a public holiday. Switzerland and other central European countries celebrate in a similar fashion, by holding parades and wearing green however it is also not unusual for Swiss students to organize celebrations of their own on Saint Patrick’s Eve. In Australia and New Zealand, St Patrick’s Day is widely celebrated as a day of drinking, with revellers typically wearing green clothing and drinking from early afternoon until late at night.
St Patrick’s Day and the consumption of alcohol
While Christian leaders have expressed concern about the secularisation of St Patrick’s Day, it appears in many places around the world the day is recognized as a day to drink. So why is St Patrick’s Day associated with drinking? The custom comes from an old Irish legend where St Patrick was served a measure of whiskey which was less than full. St Patrick felt he needed to teach the bartender a lesson about generosity. He told the bartender that a monstrous devil resided in his cellar, and this devil fed on the bartender’s dishonesty. St Patrick said he could banish the devil if he was able to change his ways.
Some time later, St Patrick returned to the pub and found the bartender filling the patrons’ glasses until they were overflowing. He went into the cellar with the bartender and found the devil starved from the bartender’s generosity. He banished the demon and stated that everyone would have a drop of liquor on his feast day. This custom is known as Patrick’s Pot or “drowning the shamrock” as it is customary to float a shamrock lead in the whiskey before having the shot.
From that one legend has become the culture of drinking on St Patrick’s Day, the stumbling out of bars, and copious consumption of beer and whiskey. If someone were to tell a bartender that there was a devil in the cellar today, they’d be laughed out of the pub. However, in St Patrick’s Day, it was enough to create a tradition which is still observed almost 1550 years later.
Enjoy St Patrick’s Day on Saturday. Take a moment to remember the religious connotations of the holiday, the story of the devil in the basement and be sure to wear a splash of green!