Luck of the Irish: The History Behind St. Patrick’s Day

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Top of the morning to ya! Ok, you might be reading this article in the morning, afternoon, or evening, but every year on March 17th, we are all Irish at heart for the day. This day, known as St. Patrick’s Day, is a religious holiday in honor of the patron saint, Saint Patrick, and the anniversary of his death in the fifth century. He is credited with bringing Christianity to Ireland. However, it wasn’t until the ninth or tenth century when people began celebrating the Roman Catholic feast day of St. Patrick on March 17th. The first parade for the day wasn’t held in Ireland, but in New York City, when Irish soldiers in the English military marched through in 1762. From that parade, Irish patriotism grew within the United States, and celebrations grew throughout the world. Today, the New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade is the world’s oldest civilian parade and largest in the country. Other big parades and activities are held in Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, and Savannah.

Throughout the world, celebrations are also held in honor of St. Patrick. The Sydney Opera House is known to go green by being lit with green lights on March 17th, and in Trafalgar Square in London, thousands of people line up for the annual parade. However, there is no better place to be on St. Patrick’s Day than in Ireland. The home country of the holiday is known for its festivities. The day is held in the same regard as Christmas and Easter. Since the holiday falls during Lent, Irish families spend the day at church in the morning and celebrating in the afternoon. Parades, community feasts, mass, and charity shows are the usual events, and everything except pubs and restaurants are closed. The biggest celebration is held in Downpatrick in Northern Ireland, where Saint Patrick is buried. Here, a week-long festival occurs with thousands of people attending.

Why Green?

On St. Patrick’s Day, it is a tradition for people to wear green or they will be pinched. Historically, blue was the first color associated with the day and Saint Patrick. Green was soon connected with the holiday, because of Ireland’s nickname, “The Emerald Isle.” Also, the color is on the country’s flag and is the color of the clover, another St. Patrick’s Day tradition. Many Irish people will wear a three-leaf clover or shamrock on their clothing. It is known that Saint Patrick used the clover in his teachings about Catholicism. The clover’s leaves represented the Holy Trinity. Another tradition some still follow is that Catholics will wear green and Protestants will wear orange. Both colors are on the flag, as well as white. The color white represents the peace between the two groups. As for the pinching, the myth goes that, if you don’t wear green, leprechauns will see you and pinch you. The green makes you invisible to them.

Traditions

The Shamrock – More commonly known as the three-leaf clover, the shamrock is a sacred plant in ancient Ireland. Also referred to as the seamroy by Celts, it symbolizes the rebirth of spring. In the seventeenth century, it became the symbol of Irish nationalism and pride for their heritage.

Irish Music – Music is an important part of the Irish culture and St. Patrick’s Day. The Celts’ culture was based on oral history with religion and legend being passed to the next generation by stories and songs. After the English had conquered their land, they were forbidden to speak their own language and were oppressed. They quickly turned to music to help remember their heritage and history. Today, traditional Irish music is played by bands and groups worldwide.

The Snake – During his time in Ireland, it is rumored that Saint Patrick once banished all the snakes from Ireland. He stood on a hilltop, now known as Croagh Patrick, and used a wooden staff to send the reptiles away. However, this legend is used mainly for the removal of pagan ideology to further the success of Christianity. In fact, Ireland was never home to snakes.

Leprechauns – The myth of these figures developed through folklore, with their Irish name “lobaircin,” meaning small-bodied fellow. Legend has it leprechauns come from the Celtic belief of fairies using their magical powers for good or evil. They are often represented as cranky people, who are known for their tricks for protecting their pots of gold, as well as mending shoes of other fairies.

On March 17th, the world comes together to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. There are parades, music, and lots of wearin’ of the green. After all, on St. Patty’s Day, everyone is just a little bit Irish.

xoxo,

Megan

Article originally published in Forsyth Magazines. 

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