With spring quickly approaching, we here at Symmetry thought it was time to look into the history behind St. Patrick’s Day and why it is celebrated so widely. We did a little digging into the history of this man and the holiday that honors him in order to bring you the origin story of St. Patrick’s Day. St. Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland whose feast is traditionally held every year on the anniversary of his death; March 17th, 461. Patrick is credited with introducing Ireland to Christianity. However, much like the famous potato that is often credited to the Irish (it is actually native to North America and was introduced to Ireland), St. Patrick was not native to Ireland.
St. Patrick was born Maewyn Succat in the late 300s A.D. in Roman Britain. At the age of 16, he was kidnapped by Irish pirates and enslaved in Northern Ireland for six years. He learned to speak the Irish language and became familiar with their traditions. Patrick finally escaped back to Britain but was captured again by the French and taught Monasticism, or how to be a monk. The French released Patrick after only a few years and sent him back to Britain where he continued to study Christianity. Patrick then claimed that he had a vision in which God told him to bring Christianity to the pagan and druid people of Ireland so he set out to return to Ireland in 432.
When Patrick arrived back in Ireland, he found that he was not immediately welcome on the main land so he began his teachings on a small group of islands off the coast. Eventually, his following grew so large that when he did travel to the main land of Ireland, he was able to spread the word of Christianity baptizing 100,000 people, ordaining new priests, guiding women towards nunhood, converting the sons of kings in the region, and aiding in the formation of over 300 churches. Mostly he is known for running the snakes out of Ireland. However, snakes have never inhabited Ireland and some say that this may have been a metaphor for running the pagan religion out of Ireland.
Patrick’s converting the Irish people to Christianity was successful in large part due to his incorporation of nature into his teachings of Christianity. Rather than completely eradicating the Irish traditions, he chose to relate them to Christianity. The pagans already used fire to worship their gods so St. Patrick celebrated Easter with a bonfire. The pagan population already believed in triple deities and, therefore, regarded the number three as holy. Patrick used this opportunity to teach the pagans about the Holy Trinity and used a three-leaf shamrock to symbolize this. That is why we associate the shamrock with St. Patrick’s Day. Patrick is also responsible for creating the Celtic Cross. The sun was a powerful symbol to the Irish culture so Patrick superimposed the sun over the cross in order to make the transition to Christianity more natural for the pagan people.
Traditionally in Ireland, families would honor St. Patrick by attending church and celebrating with a feast in the afternoon. Given that St. Patrick’s feast day was held in the middle of Lent, religious prohibitions regarding the consumption of meat were waived on this day and families would dance and eat the traditional meal of Irish bacon and cabbage. The first observance of St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland is around the end of the 9th century. The holiday has long been a traditional religious observance in Ireland with only sober celebrations taking place. Irish law even mandated that pubs be closed on March 17th in order to observe it as a strictly religious holiday up until the 1970s. It wasn’t until Budweiser ran a campaign in the 80s that St. Patrick’s Day began to be a holiday marked by drinking alcohol. In 1995, the Irish government began a national campaign to use worldwide interest in St. Patrick’s Day to drive tourism and showcase Irish culture. Now the holiday is a bigger fanfare in Ireland and includes parades.
The first St. Patrick’s Day parade was actually held in America. Records show that a parade for St. Patrick was held in Saint Augustine Florida on March 17th, 1601. In 1772, Irish soldiers serving in the British army marched in a parade in New York on March 17th to honor their patron saint. As Irish emigration to the United States grew, parades began to be observed in cities with large Irish populations such as Boston and Chicago as well. In 1962 Chicago began turning the river green in order to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day (don’t worry, the dye is safe for the environment and made from vegetables).
Ok, so the Emerald Isle and shamrocks must be the reason we associate Patrick with green, right? Wrong; Patrick was a bishop and bishops traditionally wore blue during the time that Patrick was teaching Christianity. Up until the Irish Rebellion of 1798, blue was the color used to celebrate St. Patrick. During the rebellion, Irish soldiers wore green and sang “The Wearing of the Green” to show that they were united in fighting off the British Redcoats. After that, green became Ireland’s mainstay color and the new traditional color to wear in order to honor St. Patrick on March 17th.
Interestingly enough, St. Patrick was never canonized as a saint. This is mostly due to the era in which he lived. In the first millennium, there was no canonization process in the Catholic Church. Patrick was proclaimed a saint by popular acclaim. So, this March 17th as you enjoy your corned beef and cabbage, remember to think of the man who transformed religion in Ireland. From a kidnapped boy forced into slavery to a saint by popular demand, Patrick became the patron saint of Ireland that we still celebrate nearly two thousand years after his death.