Saint Patrick’s Day, also known as The Feast of Saint Patrick, is widely known as a holiday full of green clothing, raging parties and loads of drinking. But many people don’t know the actual origin story of this Irish holiday.
Saint Patrick’s Day has been celebrated for hundreds of years as a religious and cultural holiday, but it is also a celebration of Ireland itself.
The holiday, held annually on March 17, marks the official death day of Saint Patrick (AD 385-461). Saint Patrick was the most prominent patron saint of Ireland, and he is credited with bringing Christianity to Ireland, where previously the Irish practised a form of Celtic polytheism.
Saint Patrick, however, was not originally Irish. He was born in Roman Britain as Maewyn Succat into a line of religious family men. His father, Calpurnius, was a decurion and deacon, while his grandfather, Potitus, was a priest. Patrick later changed his name to Patricius, meaning “father,” when he became a priest.
Legend has it that as a young boy, around 16 or so years old, Patrick was captured by Irish pirates and forced to tend to herd animals like sheep. After six years as a slave, he escaped, but he continued to hear a voice, presumably God, telling him to return to Ireland and convert the pagan peoples to Christianity.
After becoming a cleric, Patrick is said to have used a three-leaf clover called a shamrock as a metaphor to explain the Holy Trinity, which is a Christian doctrine representing the three God heads: God the father, God the son and God the Holy Spirit. The shamrock is now the symbol of Ireland, and the area remains predominantly Christian, with the largest church being the Roman Catholic Church.
Also according to legend, there are no snakes in Ireland because Saint Patrick drove the creature, which is commonly associated with evil, out of Ireland completely with his crozier (a hooked staff carried by a bishop as a symbol of pastoral office). Some speculate that it’s just the harsh weather, but the story still remains.
The celebration of Saint Patrick’s Day reached America through Irish immigrants who began observing St. Patrick’s Day in Boston in 1737. The first St. Patrick’s Day parade in America was held in New York City in 1766.
Sometimes, Saint Patrick’s Day is celebrated more enthusiastically by Americans trying to reconnect to their Irish-immigrant heritage than it is in Ireland, like how in Chicago, the Plumbers Local 110 union dyes the river Kelly green. The dye lasts for about five hours.
Ireland’s larger cities, like Dublin and Galway, host large festivals and parades. However, most rural communities in Ireland celebrate more traditionally, with church services and ceilidhs, a traditional Scottish or Irish social gathering involving the playing of Gaelic folk music and dancing.
There is also much consumption of food and alcohol because, historically, the traditional Lent restrictions on eating and drinking alcohol were lifted for the day.
Saint Patrick’s Day is observed by Irish diaspora around the world belonging to the Catholic Church, Anglican Communion, the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Lutheran Church.