The Origins of St. Patrick’s Day

St. Patrick’s Day is later this week, on March 17. During this time, many people wear green and try to avoid being pinched. My grandmother, a Scotswoman to the core, insists that our heritage is completely different from the Irish, but the McLachlan clan is actually connected to the O’Neill kings of Ireland — one of the oldest families in Europe. So I guess I should be celebrating St. Patrick’s Day, right? Besides, tradition holds that St. Patrick was actually born in Scotland. My husband, though of Italian and French descent, loves corned beef and cabbage, and we eat it every year for St. Patrick’s Day.

But how did this day come about? And why is it so intimately connected with Ireland?

St. Patrick

St. Patrick has long been thought of as the patron saint of Ireland. The Catholic church refers to him as the “Apostle of Ireland.” Tradition holds that he was kidnapped from his home in Scotland and taken to Ireland as a slave. He escaped, became a priest, and later returned to Ireland as a bishop to Christianize the island nation. Among the traditions that grew up around him include that he used the shamrock to teach the trinity, and that he chased the snakes out of Ireland. (There is some speculation that St. Patrick’s chasing of snakes out of Ireland refers to his aggressive conversion scheme, since the pagan Druids used serpents as a symbol of wisdom.)

The Irish have been celebrating St. Patrick for well over 1,000 years, with the first celebrations during the ninth and 10th centuries. In the early 1600s, the feast day was added to the liturgical calendar. Because St. Patrick’s Day usually falls during Lent, the prohibitions of the season are lifted for that one day in Ireland so that proper observation can be had. Liturgically, the observation of St. Patrick’s Day is moved if it falls during Holy Week.

Celebrating St. Patrick’s Day – Parade and Activities

The oldest St. Patrick’s Day parade is believed to have been celebrated on March 17, 1762 in New York City. Irish soldiers in the English military wanted to connect to their roots, and find others like them. They held a parade, and this is generally considered the oldest St. Patrick’s Day parade. Now parades are held in major cities in the U.S., including Boston, Savannah and Chicago (where the river is dyed green). Parades are held in Ireland, of course, but also in Australia, Canada, South Korea and Japan.

St. Patrick’s Day became a way for Ireland to showcase itself and boost tourism when the government began a campaign to do so in the mid-1990s. Indeed, until relatively recently, the religious nature of the holiday meant pubs and bars had to be closed in Ireland on St. Patrick’s Day. Not so anymore. Here are some of the traditions associated with St. Patrick’s Day:

  • Wearing green: The original color associated with St. Patrick was blue. However, starting in the 17th century, green gradually won out due to its association with Ireland the country. Ireland is known as the “Emerald Isle,” and green is one of the colors in the flag. On top of that Irish revolutionary groups often used green. As St. Patrick’s Day became more and more associated with “Irish-ness” the color green took over.
  • Pinching: Why do I send my son to school wearing green on March 17th? So the other kids don’t pinch him, of course! This tradition started in America in the early 1700s. Wearing green was thought to make one invisible to leprechauns, who caused trouble — including pinching others. Those not wearing green were pinched to remind them that the leprechauns could get them.
  • Corned beef: We eat corned beef and cabbage, but it’s not an entirely Irish tradition. Cabbage (and potatoes) are ancient staples of the Irish, but corned beef was added in America. Normally, you eat bacon with cabbage. However, Irish immigrants to the U.S. couldn’t afford the bacon, so corned beef — a cheap substitute they learned from Jewish immigrants — was used instead.


Christian Science Monitor


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