The History of St. Patrick's Day

stock.xchng, Photo by Jenny Rollo,

St. Patrick's Day is a festive holiday celebrated on March 17 by people of many nationalities and religions who often know little about the history of St. Patrick or the holiday's symbols. Most people are aware that the holiday originated in Ireland and that Patrick was Irish. They also may know that he drove the snakes out of Ireland and choose to wear green clothes on the holiday in order not to be pinched.

St. Patrick's Life

Patrick lived in fifth century Ireland and was the son of a Christian deacon. When he was 16 years old, he was taken prisoner by Irish raiders who had sacked the family estate. Held captive for six years, he turned to his religion for solace and began planning the conversion of the Irish from their nature-based pagan religion to that of Christianity. He eventually escaped to England. Upon his return, he put his plan into action, converting much of the Irish population to Catholicism by incorporating their religious symbols into their understanding of Christianity. March 17th was the day of St. Patrick's death, and it became a religious feast day within the Catholic Church.

Shamrocks and Wearing the Green

The shamrock was a sacred plant to the Irish pagans because it symbolized the rebirth of spring. As Christianity flourished, the shamrock came to incorporate ideas of the Holy Trinity, as well. Later, under the oppression of the English who outlawed Irish language and Catholicism, wearing the green shamrock was a symbol of heritage and pride. Today, the shamrock is still a symbol of Ireland and donning green clothing stands as a substitute for pinning the little three-lobed leaf to your shirt.

St. Patrick's Day Parades

Irish soldiers serving in the English military put on the first St. Patrick's Day Parade in the American colonies in 1762. They played traditional Irish music as they marched down the streets of New York City. Today, that same parade is the oldest civilian parade in the world, and it is the largest parade in the United States.

Driving out the Snakes

The common myth is that St. Patrick rid Ireland of snakes. In truth, there were not in snakes in the island to be rid of. The "snakes" of the legend are actually a reference to the Druids of the old pagan religion that had once pre-dominated all Celtic lands. A nickname for these priests was "adder," a type of snake.

Corned Beef and Cabbage

One of the traditional meals of St. Patrick's Day is corned beef and cabbage. St. Patrick's feat day occurs in the middle Lent, during which eating meat is forbidden. However, the Irish Catholic Church lifted this restriction just for this feast day, and the traditional meal at that time was bacon and cabbage.