What Green Means and Other Fun Facts About St. Patrick’s Day

Shamrocks and shenanigans, luck and leprechauns, corned beef and cabbage, green beer and, well, more green beer – one can’t help but wonder what it all has to do with Ireland’s patron saint, St. Patrick. Here you’ll find just how Irish Paddy’s Day really is.

Who Is St. Patrick?

You might be surprised to learn that the patron saint of the Emerald Isle wasn’t even Irish! St. Patrick was born in Britain in the fifth century, which was part of the Roman Empire at the time. At the age of sixteen he was kidnapped by Irish raiders and enslaved for six years. After escaping captivity he returned to England and began his religious study. He wrote in a letter that shortly after his return to England he had a vision of Irish people near the wood of Foclut crying out for him to live among them. After completing his study, St. Patrick returned to Ireland to spend the rest of his life as a Christian missionary. It is believed that St. Patrick died on March 17, 461, which is why the holiday is celebrated March 17th.

What Do Shamrocks and Green Have to Do With a Saint?

The Irish believe that St. Patrick, who came to spread Christianity to pagan inhabitants, used the three-leaf clover to explain the Holy Trinity. In mid-eighteenth century Ireland, people began wearing shamrocks on March 17th to show Irish-Christian pride. As time went on, the tradition evolved into wearing the color green.

It’s a Religious Holiday – Why All the Booze?

St. Patrick’s Day is the saint’s religious feast day.  These commemorations are assigned to all canonized saints in the Catholic faith to promote remembrance and celebration. The holy day is usually assigned by the date of the saint’s death. Unfortunately for the Irish, March 17th falls during Lent, meaning no meat or alcohol for observers. However, the church eventually decided to waive the restrictions of Lent on this day to encourage celebration. Later, it became tradition to drink and dance while feasting on the popular meal of Irish bacon and potatoes.

Irish Bacon and Potatoes? Isn’t It Corned Beef and Cabbage?

Irish bacon, which is a roasted pork loin similar to Canadian bacon, was popular in Ireland because pork was cheap. The same goes for potatoes. However, during the potato famine in the mid-nineteenth century, nearly a million Irish came to the United States. Because of their lack of wealth and strange accents, they struggled to find work and lived among other undesirables such as Jews and Italians. Pork was very expensive in the U.S., but beef was readily available. And though potatoes were accessible, cabbage was cheaper. The Irish became familiar with corned beef through the Jewish delis in their neighborhoods, and so the meal evolved from their tradition dish of Irish bacon and potatoes into corned beef and cabbage.

Where Was the First St. Patrick’s Day Parade?

If you guessed Ireland, you’re wrong. The first St. Patrick’s Day parade was held in New York City in 1766. Prior to the Revolutionary War, New York was home to a large number of British soldiers. There was a sizeable contingent of Irish serving in the British army, and on March 17, 1766, a number of them marched to a tavern playing music in celebration of the holiday. Though legend would have it that a parade took place in Boston in 1737, the New York celebration is the first historically recorded parade. As time went on, parades in cities like New York, Boston, and Philadelphia became a way for the Irish to celebrate their history and culture, as well as gather in solidarity. The Irish voting block came to be known as the “green machine” and, following the influx of Irish immigrants after the Great Famine, politicians began making appearances at the parades.

Religion and Politics – Where Do Leprechauns Come in?

Though the leprechaun is a strong symbol in Irish culture, it has no connection to St. Patrick’s Day. However, as the holiday grew in popularity in the United States, it became less of a religious holiday and more of a holiday to unite and celebrate Irish immigrants and their culture. The leprechaun was one of many fairies in Celtic folklore and was popular because of its mischievous nature. The legend tells that each Leprechaun was known to have a pot of gold and, if you could catch one, it would give you the pot of gold in exchange for its freedom. However, leprechauns were sinister tricksters and would do anything, including cause your death, if one tried to catch them. Leprechauns served in folklore more as a cautionary tale against trying to get rich quick and as a means of establishing boundaries, e.g. “Don’t go there! Leprechauns live there!” The commonly known images of leprechauns today have been softened for mass consumption but the features, strikingly different from original folk drawings, are derived from derogatory American cartoons published in the nineteenth century depicting the Irish as drunken monkeys.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day, everyone!

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