“Beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig ort!” — in other words, “May the blessing of St. Patrick’s Day be on you.”
I am not Irish. Not even a little bit. According to 23andMe, I am Italian and German. Leaning heavily towards the Italian. But there’s nothing wrong with finding the Irish spirit and having some St. Patrick’s Day fun! But before you find all your green clothes and don your shamrocks, let’s learn a little about the history of St. Patrick’s Day!
St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated annually on March 17, the anniversary of his death in the fifth century. The Irish have observed this day as a religious holiday for over 1,000 years. On St. Patrick’s Day, which falls during the Christian season of Lent, Irish families would traditionally attend church in the morning and celebrate in the afternoon. Lenten prohibitions against the consumption of meat were waived and people would dance, drink, and feast on the traditional meal of Irish bacon and cabbage.
Saint Patrick, who lived during the fifth century, is the patron saint of Ireland and its national apostle. Born in Roman Britain, he was kidnapped and brought to Ireland as a slave at 16. He later escaped, but returned to Ireland and was credited with bringing Christianity to its people.
In the centuries following Patrick’s death (believed to have been on March 17, 461), the mythology surrounding his life became ever more ingrained in the Irish culture: Perhaps the most well-known legend of St. Patrick is that he explained the Holy Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) using the three leaves of a native Irish clover, the shamrock.
According to history.com, legend has it that Patrick stood on an Irish hillside and delivered a sermon that drove the island’s serpents into the sea. While it’s true that the Emerald Isle is mercifully snake-free, chances are that’s been the case throughout human history. Water has surrounded Ireland since the end of the last glacial period, preventing snakes from slithering over; before that, it was blanketed in ice and too chilly for the cold-blooded creatures. Scholars believe the snake story is an allegory for St. Patrick’s eradication of pagan ideology.
Since around the ninth or 10th century, people in Ireland have been observing the Roman Catholic feast day of St. Patrick on March 17. The first St. Patrick’s Day parade actually took place in America. A St. Patrick’s Day parade was held on March 17, 1601, in a Spanish colony in what is now St. Augustine, Florida. The parade, and a St. Patrick’s Day celebration a year earlier were organized by the Spanish Colony’s Irish vicar Ricardo Artur.
More than a century later, homesick Irish soldiers serving in the English military marched in New York City on March 17, 1772, to honor the Irish patron saint. Enthusiasm for the St. Patrick’s Day parades in New York City, Boston and other early American cities only grew from there.
In Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day has traditionally been a spiritual and religious occasion. In fact, up until the 1970s, Irish laws mandated that pubs be closed on March 17. Beginning in 1995, however, the Irish government began a national campaign to use interest in St. Patrick’s Day to drive tourism and showcase Ireland and Irish culture to the rest of the world.
Today, St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated worldwide. However, those of us in North America seem to make our celebrations more extra than the rest of the world.
So, now that you know the history, go forth and celebrate — safely of course. Raise a green beer, shout “Sláinte,” try and find some gold at the end of a rainbow. But be aware, leprechauns aren’t always friendly.
The original Irish name for these figures of folklore is “lobaircin,” meaning “small-bodied fellow.” Belief in leprechauns probably stems from Celtic belief in fairies — tiny men and women who could use their magical powers to serve good or evil. In Celtic folktales, leprechauns were cranky souls, responsible for mending the shoes of the other fairies.
Leprechauns were known for their trickery, which they often used to protect their much-fabled treasure.
Finally, one last Irish note:
It’s Paddy, not Patty. Ever.
Saint Patrick’s Day? Grand.
Paddy’s Day? Sure, dead-on.
St. Pat’s? If ye must.
St. Patty? No, ye goat!