What Are We Really Celebrating Today? (St. Patrick's Day)

articles spirit history Mar 16, 2020

With March 17th right around the corner, people around the globe are gearing up to celebrate St. Patrick's Day with parades, Shamrocks, and all things green. So, what is Saint Patrick's day? Thought of internationally as a sort of Irish day, you might be surprised to know that the holiday's namesake is himself, not an Irishman. 

In reality, St. Patrick came from either Scotland or Wales. While he can't claim Irish ancestry, he was a force that changed the spiritual truth of Ireland and its people forever. Get ready to find out what else you didn't know about the universally loved St. Patrick's Day Traditions.

St. Patrick's Day Facts

  • St. Patrick Wasn't Irish:  As mentioned above, the man of the hour was not Irish. Though sources vary in his place of birth, we do know that Patrick initially found himself in Ireland as a slave. At the age of 16, he was captured during a raid and ended up in Northern Ireland, eventually ending up in Slemish Mountain in County Atrim, where his captor, a Chieftan called Milchu, made him a sheepherder. 
  • Why is St. Patrick's Day on March 17? This date marks the death of the legendary man. Patrick's sainthood was unofficial as the church itself never canonized him. He died in 461 in Saul, County Down. It was in this location that he founded his first of many churches throughout Ireland. An Irish Franciscan Friar named Luke Wadding was the man to make this celebration official before his death in 1657 finally.
  • The True Significance of the Shamrock:  At the mere thought of Ireland or St. Patricks Day, a bright green shamrock springs to mind for most people. Shamrock refers to the common three-leaf clover or any number of trifoliate plants. Patrick used this plant, native to the Island of Ireland, to explain the concept of the holy trinity to those he was seeking to convert. Below this surface explanation, though, we also see the interweaving of the ancient earth-honoring spiritual ways of the Irish and Celts as it became usurped by Christian missionaries. The triskelion, a widely recognized symbol featuring three interlocking spirals, has been ascribed to the Celtic cosmology since ancient times.  
  • Was St. Patrick the First Missionary to Ireland? While Patrick was undoubtedly the earliest missionary to monumentally shift the spiritual and religious atmosphere towards Christianity, he was not the very first. St. Palladius arrived in Ireland in 431, five years before Patrick, though his efforts were far less successful.  
  • Where the Color Green Comes In:  We think of Ireland as 'the Emerald Isle' as we picture green shamrocks, wild moss, and green rolling hills of the countryside. While the color green seems a natural association to the Irish celebration, the color most associated with St. Patrick himself, was blue. In 1798, the year of the Irish Rebellion, the color green was adopted in opposition to the red worn by the British. During the rebellion, the Irish sang "The Wearing of the Green," which fixed it in place as the color of national heritage and pride. 

A Brief Overview: The Life of St. Patrick

We've already learned that Patrick made it to Ireland initially as a slave, becoming a sheepherder. Before his capture, Patrick was not an especially religious youth, though his grandfather had been a priest. During his six years as a captive laborer, Patrick began praying ceaselessly. He wrote in his memoir, Confessions, "I prayed a hundred times in the day and almost as many at night."

After some years working with the flock, he started having dreams which he believed were urging him to escape. He returned to his home country, saying in his memoir, "I heard in my sleep a voice saying to me: 'It is well that you fast. Soon you will go to your own country.' And again, after a short while, I heard a voice saying to me: 'See, your ship is ready.' "

Returning to Ireland in his 40s, Patrick set out full force to convert the local pagan tribes to Christianity. All-in-all, his mission continued for 29 years, baptizing more than 120,000 Irish and originating roughly 300 churches.  

During the 17th century, St. Patrick's Day became a Catholic feast day. In the 18th century, it became a celebration observed by Irish immigrants in America to remember their culture and history. The first St. Patrick's Day celebration occurred in Boston in 1737.  

St. Patrick's Day Traditions Around the World

  • St. Patrick's Day in Ireland: Ireland remains one of the only countries in the world in which the holiday is official, with businesses closing. Even pubs were closed for business on this holiday until 1903 when it became an official public holiday. During the entire week of this holiday, parades and festivals light up the island. These festivities usually feature local musicians as well as highlighting traditional Irish music, visual, and performance art. Contrary to popular belief, Irish themselves seldom celebrate the day with corned beef and cabbage- an Irish-American tradition. You're more likely to find Irish folks enjoying bacon, lamb stew, meat pies, colcannon, fruit tarts, coffee, and of course, the famous Irish staple- soda bread. 
  • United States: The original Irish-American Immigrants created some of the oldest celebrations of the feast of St. Patrick outside of Ireland itself. Many port cities int the US are still major destinations to celebrate St. Patrick's day, albeit modern celebrations are a far cry from the holiday's religious origins. Major parties occur in Boston, Chicago, NYC, and New Orleans. In Chicago, the river is dyed green. In New Orleans, huge vegetable food-fight occurs- a nod to the food scraps rich Catholics would throw down from festival floats to the poor. In all cities mentioned, parades and public festivities abound.
  • Montserrat:  Also celebrating St. Patrick's Day as an official holiday, it's called 'The Emerald Isle of the Caribbean." The island, which continues to be British territory, received many persecuted Irish Catholic people from the 17th century onward. Of the island's 5,000 inhabitants, most claim at least some Irish ancestry—celebrations in Montserrate fuze a unique combination of Irish, African, and Caribbean tradition.  

These are just a few examples of how people around the world commemorate the unique green island of Europe. The amount of Americans who claim Irish ancestry is nearly seven times more than the actual population of Ireland! With around 39.6 million people in the US alone tracing their ancestry to Ireland, it's no wonder this diverse holiday has captured so many hearts. The magic of the vibrant island continues to spark celebration as we remember not just St. Patrick himself but the spirit of the Irish. 

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