St. Patrick’s Day

Everyone is at least a little bit Irish on St. Patrick’s Day. That explains why on March, 17th even in places without an Irish diaspora everyone dresses green, joins the famous céilí dances and drinks stout beer. On Friday, the whole world will once again be captivated with the celebration but before you get caught in the magical world of leprechauns take a few moments to recall what are the origins of St. Patrick’s Day.

Although St. Patrick’s Day is a traditional Irish festivity, St. Patrick wasn’t actually Irish. Surprisingly, he was born around A.D. 390 in Rome which at the time stretched all the way to today’s Britain. What’s more his real name wasn’t even Patrick. Reportedly, he was born Maewyn Succat and changed his name to Patricius (Roman equivalent of English Patrick) first as an adult. His Latin name was a derivation of a term for “father figure” what was supposed to symbolize St. Patrick’s priesthood and willingness to be a role-model for non-believers. However, as a young boy St. Patrick’s wasn’t religious like the rest of his Christian family. Despite his parents’ disapproval he declared himself an atheist. Shortly before the boy turned 16, he was kidnapped by Irish raiders and taken away into slavery. He spent six years in the county of Antrim where he was forced to serve in bondage and was frequently beaten and humiliated.

Marching Band playing on a St. Patrick's Day Parade in New York City.

How St. Patrick managed to escape from captivity remains unclear. According to the legend, a voice told him in his dreams how to secretly get on a pirate ship which would allow him to flee the island. This way he managed to get to Gaul, a small town in present-day France. After the dangerous journey, St. Patrick successfully got back home where he reunited with his family and received priestly ordination. After 14 years of intense religious preparation the unknown ‘voice’ spoke to St. Patrick once again and ordered him to return to Ireland and convert local people to Christianity. He did so by telling people about his own experiences and religious doubts that he experienced in his youth. He used also a shamrock, one of the symbols of St. Patrick’s Day, to explain to Irish people the Christian concept of the holy trinity with each leave representing the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Patrick’s life in Ireland wasn’t easy. Although he was quite successful in his conversion endeavor, he was often oppressed by the local nobility and together with the faithful suffered from continuous persecution.

St. Patrick's Day celebration in Dublin. Photograph is distributed under the Creative Commons 2.0 Generic license.

The celebration of St. Patrick’s Day as we know it today began in 17th century. In 1631 the Church established a Feast Day in memory of St. Patrick’s life and religious devotion. Since it was the day falling approximately in the middle of the Lent, 40-day long Christian fasting season, people where happy to have a day to indulge themselves with meaty dishes and alcoholic beverages, normally forbidden throughout the whole month. What started as a big annual family dinner turned over time in a huge celebration that we know today. In 18th century St. Patrick’s parades started to be organized. The first one was rather modest and took place in Boston in 1737. Soon it was followed by the first official big-scope event in the New York City in 1762. Today, St. Patrick’s parade in New York is the longest running civilian parade in the world with hundreds of thousands of participants joining the celebration.

The association of green color with the festivity came even later. The original St. Patrick’s color was blue, referring to the color of the ancient Irish flag. However, as the Irish Rebellion broke out in 1798, the song “The Wearing of the Green” naturally gave the green color the symbolic status in Irish culture. The custom of drinking beer also wasn’t a part of traditional celebration. As a matter of fact, until recently all pubs in Ireland were closed on St. Patrick’s Day. The alcoholic tradition was born first in 1970s to a large extent thanks to the marketing efforts of the big beer brands.

Nowadays, St. Patrick’s Day represents a beautiful bridge between European and American culture. Although the festivity bases on European heritage, it’s Irish-Americans that organized first colorful parades and all the festivities to reconnect with their European roots.

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