Updated: Nov 2, 2021
As Americans, we know St. Patrick’s Day to be a celebration of leprechauns, rainbows, four-leaf clovers, pots of gold, and of course, all things green; But what is it about? Most of us celebrate by adorning some form of green hue and pinching those who do not follow suit, never questioning why. Let's take a deep dive into what Saint Patrick’s Day is really all about.
Who Was Saint Patrick?
Well for starters, who was Saint Patrick? Saint Patrick was a British Christian missionary. Yes, British not Irish as most of us would assume, Saint Patrick was born Maewyn Succat in 386 A.D. Although coming from a religious family, Succat didn't initially believe in religion. Around the age of 16, he was captured and brought to Ireland and forced to be a shepherd by a group of Irish burglars. Over the course of the 6 years, he was in captivity, he became extremely religious and converted to Christianity.
After getting a message from God, he escaped and returned to England where he later became a missionary and changed his name to Patricious, or Patrick, meaning, “father.” After some time, he received a message from an angel who said he should go back to Ireland. Once arrived, he began converting others to Christianity. Instead of completely eradicating the Irish people’s religion, a nature-based pagan religion at the time, he incorporated their traditions into his lessons. Patrick passed away on March 17 461 A.D. He was nearly forgotten, but his legend began to spread until he was recognized as the patron saint of Ireland.
Saint Patrick’s Day
Saint Patrick’s Day was first celebrated as a minor religious holiday in 1631, celebrating Saint Patrick and Christianity as a whole. However, as Irish people began to migrate to the US to find a new life after the Irish Potato Famine in the mid-1800s, it quickly turned into a secular celebration of Irish culture. This transition is mainly attributed to the Saint Patrick’s Day parades that Irish immigrants held as a show of patriotism and to protest their low class in the US.
But how did the outlandish traditions that we know today come to be? The iconic green color that Saint Patty's Day is known for, references the green stripe found on the Irish flag, an example of Irish patriotism. Ireland is also historically associated with the color green, often called the “Emerald Isle” for its green scenery. If you have ever forgotten to wear green on St. Patrick’s Day you are definitely familiar with the tradition of pinching those not sporting the color. This legend was started by 1700s St. Patrick’s Day enthusiasts who claimed that wearing green made you invisible to leprechauns who would pinch anyone they could see. A pot of gold at the end of a rainbow is another popular symbol. It comes from the folklore that if you catch a leprechaun, you can make him give you his pot of gold, which is located at the end of a rainbow. The cabbage and corned beef that we often associate with Saint Patrick’s Day is another byproduct of Irish immigrant’s low class in the US. Cabbage was traditionally served with bacon, but because they couldn’t afford it at the time, they resorted to corned beef which they purchased at Jewish delis. Four-leaf clovers are another popular St. Patrick’s Day symbol. This is derived from the Christian interpretation behind the plant, representing hope, faith, love, luck, holy spirit, and the grace of God. According to legend, Saint Patrick utilized this in his teachings about Christianity to the Irish, but because four-leaf clovers were scarce, he used three-leaf clovers instead.
Saint Patrick’s Day in Ireland
In Ireland, Saint Patty’s Day is celebrated through parades, carnivals, and festivals. Christians go to church to honor the Holy Day of Obligation, also known as St. Patrick’s Day, usually followed by a feast. The idea that the day is dominated by excessive drinking is likely the result of Christians being temporarily absolved from their restrictions on food and drink on Saint Patrick’s Day. This tradition definitely adds to the excitement surrounding the holiday.
From its inception as a celebration of Christianity first being introduced to Ireland, to the worldwide parades and practices of today, there is definitely more to St. Patrick’s Day than meets the eye. Irish folklore and traditions make for an unforgettable celebration of culture and Christianity.