Green garb, leprechauns, pinching, drinking, partying, parades, more drinking – Saint Patrick’s Day is an interesting holiday rife with traditions. But where did it all begin? Why do we celebrate this Irish homage on March 17th every year?
Let’s put to rest the guessing and get to the bottom of the pint glass on how St. Paddy’s became a national holiday of greened-out parades and Irish pride.
Ireland & Catholicism
Saint Patrick, who the holiday is so aptly named after, is credited for bringing Christianity to the Irish people. Not actually Irish (crazy, right?), Patrick was born in Roman Britain where he was later kidnapped and brought to Ireland as a slave at the age of 16. He later escaped from the island but would return, bringing his newfound Christian faith with him. Saint Patrick’s legend grew, most notably in his doctrine of the Holy Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit), which he compared to the three leaves of a Shamrock – the native Irish clover that’s synonymous with the holiday.
Legend also has it that St. Patrick bravely banished all the snakes from Ireland with just his faith and a wooden staff. Fun fact, there was never any snakes on Ireland but the “eradication” of the snakes is a symbolic triumph of Christianity over paganism. Within 200 years of Patrick’s return to Ireland, the whole country was completely Christianized.
The earliest St. Patrick’s Day celebrations
Once the 10th century rolled around, the Roman Catholics began observing the feast day of St. Patrick on March 17 – the anniversary of his death five centuries earlier. Because the date fell during the Christian season of lent, Irish families would celebrate after church as the Lenten prohibitions against eating meat were waived. And who doesn’t love celebrating a reason to eat Irish bacon?
Coming to America
Believe it or not, but the first actual St. Patrick’s parade was in America, not Ireland, despite the fact that Irish people had been observing St. Patrick’s Day since the 10th century. The parade took place on March 17, 1762 as Irish soldiers serving in the military marched through New York City celebrating, dancing and playing music.
Fast forward a century and the great potato famine hit Ireland in 1845, causing nearly one million Irish Catholics to flock to America to escape starvation. As a result, the St. Paddy’s parades began to grow over the next few years and by 1848, the New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade became the official parade, and is today, the oldest civilian parade and largest in the U.S. with more than 150,000 participants and nearly 3 million parade watchers.
As more and more Irish immigrants poured into America, they started to realize their growing numbers presented them with great political power. Suddenly, St. Patrick’s Day Parades weren’t just celebrations, but shows of strength for Irish Americans, and must-attend events for political candidates in search of voters.
While New York is credited with the biggest and most official St. Patrick’s Day Parade, its ripple effect extended to major cities across America, including Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and Savannah – each developing their own unique traditions. For example, in 1962, Chicago started dying the Chicago River green as an homage to the holiday. A tradition that still holds true today, although much eco-friendlier.
Today, St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated in countries across the world, from Russia and Australia to Canada and Japan. And while it’s become synonymous with parades and partying, that wasn’t always the case in the homeland itself. Up until the 1970s, Irish law mandated that pubs were to be closed on March 17, which today just sounds like the last thing you’d expect. But by 1995, the Irish government wised up and began leveraging the holiday as a tourism driver to showcase Ireland and its culture to the rest of the world.
It wouldn’t be St. Patrick’s Day without the traditions, so what are they and what do they mean? Here’s a quick rundown.
These “little bodied” men come from Irish folklore. They’re mischievous cobblers who wear green because it makes them invisible. If you catch one, you get three wishes … just be careful, the little buggers are tricky.
We wear green on St. Patrick’s Day because based on leprechaun legend, it makes us invisible from their mischievous deeds, namely pinching. Hence, why you get pinched for not cladding yourself in green.
This famous St. Paddy’s dish was actually created as a cheap substitute for poor Irish American immigrants whose traditional homeland dish was Irish bacon.
Each clover pedal represents one part of the holy trinity (father, son and holy spirit).
Beer was the most affordable option for Irish American immigrants to celebrate their culture and the green additive didn’t happen until centuries later. Because everything else on the day was green, why shouldn’t the beer be?