Illustration by Trevor Robertson
Since the early 17th century, Irish and non-Irish alike have recognized Saint Patrick’s impact on the Irish people.
The holiday’s namesake, Saint Patrick, was born into an aristocrat, non-Irish family sometime during the late fourth century as Maewyn Succat. Records were not kept about his place of birth, though legend says he was born in Britain.
Succat was kidnapped when he was 16 by Irish raiders and forced to work tending sheep. While he was not at all interested in Christianity early in his life, as a slave he sat in on many religious conversations and was slowly converted.
Six years after his kidnapping, Succat heard a voice telling him to leave Ireland so he escaped and went back to Britain where he became reacquainted with his family. He then studied at a monastery in France for 12 years and was ordained a priest.
He returned to Ireland after again hearing the voice, this time telling him to move back to Ireland as a missionary. It was then that he took on the name Patricius, which was later anglicized as Patrick.
The majority of the Irish were pagan at the time, so Succat spent his time actively preaching Christianity. Through active preaching he converted many, including members of the royal family.
Legend says that Succat cleared the country from snakes, though snakes have never existed in Ireland since it is surrounded by water that is too cold for them to migrate. It is likely that the story is symbolism for his clearing the land of paganism.
So, why March 17? It is most likely the day that Succat died, so people use it as a day to commemorate him and what he did for their country.
Originally, the holiday was religiously based. Everything would close down except the restaurants and pubs so that everyone could go to church.
Since the holiday falls just before lent, it was also a day of reprieve. They would spend time with family or go out to eat and drink at the pub.
Succat used the clover to teach about the trinity, using each leaf to represent the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Members would then wear the shamrock to symbolize their Irish-Christian pride.
With the increase in the Irish population during the mid 1800s, many residents were in poverty. These conditions, along with religious prejudice, forced the Irish to leave their homeland.
Since immigrating to the United States was relatively inexpensive, many Irish citizens chose to come here. They brought their traditions with them, including St. Patrick’s Day, though it did not stay the same.
The modern holiday is the Americanized version that has developed over time. Commercialization took the religious aspect out and added “luck of the Irish,” which didn’t exist before.
The Irish-Americans still wore their shamrocks to show their pride, but this tradition shifted to wearing green—the color associated with Ireland, the Emerald Isle and the shamrock.
Originally, the color associated with the holiday was a light blue, which can be found on ancient versions of the Ireland flag.
The pinching tradition is also of American origin. It is said that leprechauns will pinch you, but they cannot see you if you are wearing green so people pinch as a reminder that the leprechauns will get you.
The parades that you often see on St. Patrick’s Day didn’t even start in Ireland. The first one took place in Boston in the early 1700s.
Since St. Patrick’s Day started, just about the only sticking tradition is the drinking.