A quick poll in your workplace or around the dinner table will likely find St. Patrick’s Day associated with wearing green colors, shamrocks, and green-tinted beer. But beyond the “kiss me I’m Irish” plastic hats and subtle (or obvious) pinches for those not wearing green, where on earth did this celebration come from?
It may seem odd from the outset to find out that St. Patrick’s Day begins with a non-Irish man who was initially banished to an island and was unwelcome by the local Irish populace. Oh, and the traditional colors for St. Patrick’s Day celebrations are blue and his name wasn’t Patrick. It was Maewyn Succat. What???
Maewyn (soon to be known as Patricius) first landed in Ireland having been captured by Irish pirates at the age of 16 and enslaved for six years as a shepherd. It was during this time he converted to Christianity. Patrick tried to escape his captors, but was recaptured by the French and later released to Britain. It was here Patrick claimed he had a vision that told him to bring Christianity to the Irish people.
Things didn’t begin smoothly for Patrick when he returned to the island. The locals (who were predominantly druidic) had little time or patience for his teaching. He was forced to leave and landed on some small islands off the coast. It was here he would begin to gain followers and soon would have an incredible impact on the country of Ireland for many years to come. Patrick would become best known for utilizing the shamrock when discussing spiritual concepts.
So that’s all fine and good, but when did the celebration known as St. Patrick’s Day really begin? It was first celebrated in the 17th Century to commemorate the life of St. Patrick. It was believed his death was on the 17th of March 461 AD, so the celebration has been hosted on the 17th ever since. The date also falls during the Catholic observance of Lent. It would be on this day when the prohibitions of Lent were relaxed and people would celebrate with dancing, gatherings, and eating bacon and cabbage.
By the 18th Century, the celebration was exported to the American colonies. Here the Irish communities would begin to draw close ties between St. Patrick and their Irish heritage. It would be in 1737 that Boston held the first-ever St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
In the 19th Century, the celebration in America gained even more traction as immigrants flooded the United States in hopes of escaping the Great Famine. It was the high level of immigration that transformed the once-obscure celebration into a celebration for the masses.
As the festival gained traction, Irish Aid societies began combining their efforts and established large-scale parades, the likes of which have seen up to 3 million in attendance. Residents of Chicago also got into the spirit and in the 1960s had the river colored green on the 17th.
Commercialism has had its effect on the celebration and transformed the one-day reprieve from Lent into a full-blown green hat, green beer, green river party. The floodgates are opened and all society is welcome to participate. So when you adorn the shamrock or share a pint with a friend this St. Patrick’s Day you’ll be armed with a fantastic conversation starter as to why we’re all celebrating in the first place.