The History of St. Patrick’s Day | Irish Traditions
The man whose name we associate with green hats and mid-March parades, St. Patrick, was not actually Irish. He was born in Britain and was captured by Irish pirates while a young man, after which he spent six years as a slave in Ireland. During his enslavement he converted to Christianity, and after escaping he studied on the Continent and was ordained as a priest. Acting on a vision, he returned as a missionary to the island where he had been a slave. Initially, his preaching did not take, but he persisted and began to win the people over. St. Patrick converted and baptized thousands, including sons of kings, and he transformed Ireland into a Catholic stronghold, which it remains to this day.
St. Patrick’s color was actually blue, not green, according to historians. The color blue was eventually replaced by green as the shamrock, a national symbol of the beginning of spring, became an emblem of revolution against the British occupation of Ireland. People wore shamrocks to signify their displeasure with British rule, and the color eventually spread to armbands, uniforms, and the holiday itself. The color seemed especially fitting, as the lands of the Emerald Isle are a lush green all year round.
St. Patrick’s Day originally celebrated the arrival of Christianity in Ireland. It was celebrated with a grand feast on March 17th, which is believed to be the anniversary of St. Patrick’s death. The holiday was brought to America in the 19th century as a symbol of Irish culture and heritage, and soon became a way for people from all backgrounds to get together in joy, laughter, and beer.
Now that you understand the history, let’s talk about some well-known St. Patrick’s Day traditions. The meal associated with St. Patrick’s Day is cabbage and corned beef, a meat staple the Irish borrowed from their Jewish neighbors. It was cheaper than bacon, which was typically eaten with cabbage, so the new Irish immigrants to America adapted and transformed the unfamiliar into something delicious and quintessentially Irish.
Huge floats, thousands of people in the streets, and green splattered on happy faces—I’m sure we’ve all experienced a St. Patrick’s Day parade at least once. But these parades were not a part of the original holiday feasts. In fact, they started in America. The first one was held in Boston in 1737, and they only surfaced in Dublin in 1931.
Shamrocks and leprechauns are traditions that make especially fun decorations. Legend states that St. Patrick used the three-leaved shamrock to explain the Holy Trinity to his new audiences, who, some scholars believe, were drawn to both in part because of their native religion’s emphasis on the number three. As far as leprechauns go, they’re entirely pagan folklore. These little tricksters were generally cranky and greedy men who worked in the fairy shoe-mending trade. While there’s no real historical connection between these small-bodied fellows and the holiday, they sure add pizzazz to the party!