St. Patrick’s Day History, Traditions & Facts
If you're a fan of stout ale, green fabric and rainbows, then March 17th is probably marked in red (gold, or green) on your calendar. Why? Well, because it's St. Patrick's Day, silly. It's the day when being Irish or even just attempting a lyrical brogue will make you an honorary member of the Emerald Isle.
Although the wearing of the green on St. Patrick's Day may not be as hands-on as carving a Halloween pumpkin, and decorating your entry with a rainbow array of balloons doesn't have the traditional appeal of decking out the Christmas tree, St. Patrick's Day is still an important holiday in the U.S. It falls between St. Valentine's Day and Easter, and all that green is partly a sly wink and a jaunty tip of the hat to the coming spring season. To appreciate the corned beef, shamrocks and leprechaun gold so emblematic of St. Paddy's Day, let's take a quick look at the origins of the holiday.
The Origins of St. Patrick's Day
St. Patrick's Day commemorates the Roman Catholic feast of Ireland's patron saint. St. Patrick was a 5th century man kidnapped from Britain at the age of 16. He worked as a slave laborer in Ireland for six years before escaping back to his home in Britain via Gaul (now France). After returning home, Patrick had a vision about his future in which he saw himself preaching the word of God in Ireland. Patrick joined the Roman Catholic Church where he studied for 14 years before returning to Ireland. His vision may well have been prophetic: During his second stay on the island, he preached Christianity and did good works for over 30 years.
There are lots of legends about St. Patrick, but none is as dramatic or inaccurate as his being credited with having driven all the snakes out of Ireland. In fact, there were never any snakes in Ireland to begin with. The myth continues, though, and adds mystery and power to the legend of this beloved historical figure.
St. Patrick's Day in the U.S.
The Census Bureau reports that over 34 million Americans claim Irish ancestry. That means there are more Irish Americans planting shamrocks and searching for pots of gold than there are citizens in all of Ireland, and that's not blarney.
Irish immigrants have introduced a number of customs and stories to America:
- Wearing green - Wearing green is one of the most distinctive celebratory symbols of St. Patrick's Day in the U.S., but green isn't necessarily part of the traditional celebration in other parts of the world. In Ireland, wearing green was historically considered bad luck -- or at least a risky practice. It was believed to be a faery color, and one that could bring down the wrath of the little people if worn too prominently or too often.
- St. Patrick's Day Parade - The first St. Patrick's Day parade is widely believed to have been hosted in New York in 1762. Popular from the start, competing parades sponsored by various Irish organizations over the years have culminated in what is arguably the most celebrated and famous St. Patrick's Day parade -- possibly in the world. The New York St. Patrick's Day Parade attracts over three million onlookers, and in 2006 included over 150,000 marchers, entertainers and other participants.
- Leprechauns - Although leprechauns in pop culture may appear charming and mischievous, the origin of these little men derives from Celtic folklore where they are portrayed as ill-tempered cobblers who resort to devilish tricks to conceal their treasure. What caused the change from cantankerous munchkin to beloved icon? Leprechauns started appearing in St. Patrick's Day celebrations in the 1960s after the release of the Disney movie Darby O'Gill & the Little People in which they were depicted as friendly, cheerful and helpful. Leprechauns have undergone something of a public relations boon over the decades, but that's not such a bad thing, especially if you're into gold-foil wrapped chocolate.
Bringing St. Patrick's Day Recipes to Your Table
You may be looking forward to a big pot of corned beef and cabbage for your St. Patrick's Day celebration, but corned beef is a relatively recent addition to a much older cabbage dish. Originally cabbage was served with Irish bacon, and corned beef was later substituted as a cost cutting measure. Corned beef is believed to have been adopted first by the Irish residents of New York's Lower East Side during the first decades of the 20th century. Where did they get the idea? No one knows for sure, but corned beef was a common ingredient in the Jewish cuisine of the period. This is one of many examples of what makes America such a rich (and delicious) melting pot. For more St. Patrick’s Day recipes, see Traditional St. Patrick’s Day Recipes.
Tips for a Fun St. Patrick's Day Celebration
To appreciate the gleeful good cheer of St. Patrick's Day, most advocates would suggest a relaxed attitude and a fist filled with a pint of ale (green or otherwise). The Irish know how to write a limerick -- and a bawdy drinking song. It isn't all blarney, though. The Irish are masters at weaving fables around common objects and themes and filling them with lyrical power.
This St. Patrick's Day use the greeting, "Slainté!" which means "good health," and place a shamrock plant on your windowsill. There are number of varieties sold as shamrocks or under the scientific name Oxalis. You should also consider visiting an authentic Irish pub and indulging in a bit of dark stout. It may take a little getting used to, but a swallow or two of robust ale may have heart healthy benefits that rival that of a daily aspirin -- and be much more fun to administer.
For more St. Patrick’s Day information, see: