Every year on March 17, citizens of Ireland, those with Irish ancestry – or anyone who wants a reason to celebrate – observe the feast day of Ireland’s patron saint. For some, this may involve attending a church service to honor the Christian saint. But for most, St. Paddy’s Day celebrations include the wearing o’ the green, eating corned beef and cabbage, going to a parade, and/or drinking green beer.
In fact, the celebrations surrounding this Irish holiday may be more well-known than its subject.
St. Patrick – the ManHere is how Patrick described himself: “I am a sinner, a simple country person, and the least of all believers.” If he only knew the attention he’s received for the past 15 centuries!
In his Confessio, Patrick wrote that he was taken from his home in Roman Britain when he was about sixteen and sent to Ireland as a prisoner. He tended animals there for about six years until he had a dream in which he envisioned his escape.
His escape was successful, and he returned to his family in England, where he became a Christian priest and eventually a bishop. Then he had another dream. In this one, he heard the voices of the Irish people asking him to return.
So, he did. Following his calling, he preached his religion and built churches throughout Ireland, inspiring numerous tales and legends about his life and adventures. One of these legends records his death on March 17, sometime around 461. As is the case with many saints (including St. Valentine), the Catholic Church celebrates his feast day to mark his death.
St. Patrick – the LegendInterestingly, many legends surrounding St. Patrick relate to his relationship with Druidism, the prevalent belief system in Ireland in his time.
One such story is St. Patrick driving the snakes out of the country. Some historians see this as a metaphor for overcoming Druidism, as serpents were a Druid symbol. Some say this is a revisionist exaggeration: Druids continued to exist in Ireland for centuries following the death of St. Patrick. Still, in the end, there are probably more Catholics and Christians in Ireland than Druids.
Other legends credit Patrick with a more conciliatory approach to the Druids. For example, using the three-leafed shamrock flower, a sacred plant to the Druids, to illustrate the Holy Trinity.
The truth of St. Patrick no doubt lies somewhere in between these two extremes.
St. Patrick's Day TraditionsWhile St. Patrick is usually associated with all things Irish, several of his holiday’s traditions are strictly American.
ParadesThe first St. Patrick’s Day parade was in Boston in 1737, but New York has the longest running St. Patrick’s Day parade. NYC has held one every year since 1762. It may also be the largest now with around 150,000 marchers and a live audience numbering in the millions.
Unfortunately, for years, these two parades, and others across the country, have also been known for their anti-LGBTQ stances. Until 2014, New York City banned LGBTQ groups from marching in St. Patrick's Day parade, and Boston did not lift its ban until 2015. Even now, LGBTQ groups still face barriers to participation in these events.
Green DyeAlso since 1962, boats have dumped green dye into the Chicago River, making it run green for about five hours the Saturday before every St. Patrick's Day. Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley started this tradition, which allows the public to watch the dyeing process from either side of the river between Wabash Avenue and Columbus Drive.
Every year, around 45 pounds of dye goes into the river. The exact content of the green dye seems to be a closely guarded secret, but the Friends of the Chicago River say it’s not the worst thing that's dumped into that waterway.
Corned beef and cabbageCabbage is a traditional Irish food, but corned beef is more of a Jewish food. So how is this an Irish thing?
A century ago, Irish immigrants in the Lower East Side of New York City found that the corned beef sold by local Jewish butchers was a less expensive alternative to Irish bacon. So, if you’re Jewish, you can celebrate your part in this traditional Irish-American meal.
DrinkingStatistics showStatistics show that March 17 is the fourth most popular drinking day in the U.S. (the first three are New Year’s Eve, Christmas, the Fourth of July). Beer sales increase by something like 152% on St. Patrick’s Day, and Guinness sales, in particular, by 819%! Worldwide, St. Paddy’s Day revelers will consume 13 million pints of beer. Unfortunately, this indulgence is accompanied by an 8% rise in drunk driving deaths than the average day.
If you’ll be raising a pint on St. Patrick’s Day – sláinte!
And please drink responsibly: either designate a driver or use a taxi/rideshare service to get home safely.