For a millennium, St. Patrick’s Day has been celebrated on March 17 in honor of the anniversary of Saint Patrick’s death, but how did the religious veneration of the man credited with bringing Christianity to Ireland evolve into a worldwide celebration of beer and the color green?
After all, St. Patrick was originally associated with a different hue altogether--blue. And the first St. Patrick’s Day parades took place in New York City, far from the emerald slopes of Ireland.
So where did the customs beloved by this nation and so many others come from, and how did it evolve into a full-fledged festival of fun? It seems that a hodgepodge of historical events can explain St. Patty’s Day down to the roots of its shiny, green shamrocks.
The famously green, hilly terrain of Ireland is bountiful with the shamrock, which is the official symbol of Ireland. Once valued for their medicinal properties, the tiny three-leafed plant’s association to St. Patrick’s Day was forever cemented when Patrick the Saint held one up demonstrate to ancient Irelanders the concept of the Holy Trinity--Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The spiritually-significant triage gains an appendage in America sometime after 1859, when Irish miners in Nevada were called lucky after discovering silver and gold. It was no compliment, however, as it implied that Irish were lacking in intellect and had only their luck to credit for their fortune.
Some say the clover’s green color represents a spring-like rebirth, and its four leaves signify the four values of love, faith, hope and luck.
Saint Patrick’s personal fortune has never been associated with luck, but rather with divine intervention. He lived from about 387 to 461, and in that time, he managed to go from privileged son, to captured slave, to the missionary that converted Ireland from Druidism to Christianity.
Born in Britain to Roman parents, Calpurnius and Conchessa, who were themselves in charge of a colony and a number of slaves, Patrick was kidnapped as a young teenager and taken to Ireland, where he was forced to herd sheep.
During his enslavement, he began to pray, and as Catholic.org relates, he escaped six years later upon receiving guidance from God in a dream. After heeding the heavenly advice by climbing aboard a pirate ship, the saint-to-be made his way back to Britain and was reunited with his parents.
Patrick continued on a religious path and was eventually ordained a Bishop. In 433, he embarked for Ireland once again, this time as a missionary. After decades of God’s work, he died in Saul at the sight of his first church. It was centuries before he was celebrated for driving paganism from Ireland (and snakes, although snakes have never existed on the island.)
Originally commemorated with a feast of bacon and cabbage, Saint Patrick wasn’t honored with a parade until 1762 when, a full 15 years before America was to be born as a nation, the English military’s Irish soldiers marched through New York City accompanied by traditional music. By 1848, this practice evolved into the New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade, which is now the oldest and largest civilian parade in America.
It was in this era that Irish Americans began to pinch those who weren’t wearing green to warn of leprechauns, who were actually nasty, wee old men. While green made one invisible to the leprechauns, it’s also the color favored by faeries, so children in Ireland were careful not to wear too much of it lest they be carried away.
Much of the enthusiastic merriment that accompanies St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, including wearing green, can be traced to America, where no doubt St. Patty's Day festivies became an integral way for Irish Americans to stay connected to the culture of their motherland.
In Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day remained a day of feast for many centuries. Families would stay home to prepare a meal and men would gather to drink from what may be the origin for the pot of gold, the Pota Pádraig or “St. Patrick's pot." It wasn’t till the 1970s that the Irish government allowed pubs to be open on the holiday.
Inspired by boisterous American traditions, St. Patrick’s Day is now a multi-day affair in Dublin complete with parades, it's celebrated on such distant shores as Russia and Japan, and an estimated 13 million pints of Guinness are consumed during the holiday worldwide.
Like they say, on St. Patrick’s Day, everyone is Irish.
Four Fun Facts:
More people are named Patrick in America than exist in all of Ireland.
Since 1962, Illinois has been turning the Chicago River green on St. Patrick's Day by adding vegetable dye.
In Ireland, green is worn by Catholics while orange is worn by Protestants.
The traditional St. Patrick’s Day feast of cabbage and bacon was eagerly awaited in Ireland because it lifted the restrictions of Lent, while America's tradition of corned beef and cabbage was invented as an homage to the flavors of the homeland.