On Wednesday, March 17, 2021, we will be celebrating St. Patrick’s Day. Since I’ve never looked up the history on this holiday, I thought I would now since there is Irish blood in my family line (our last name is an Irish surname), and to see what it is all about besides the wearing of green and drinking of green beer (although I’ve never acquired a taste for beer).
The Old Farmer’s Almanac provides the following information on St. Patrick’s Day:
Although the holiday [St. Patrick’s Day] originally started as a Christian feast day celebrating the life of St. Patrick and the spreading of Christianity to Ireland, today, it is a day of revelry and a celebration of all things Irish. Don’t forget to wear green!
St. Patrick’s Day is officially observed on March 17 each year, though celebrations may not be limited to this date. The significance of March 17 is that it’s said to be the date of St. Patrick’s death in the late 5th century (circa A.D. 493).
Who was St. Patrick?
Saint Patrick is the patron saint and national apostle of Ireland. He is credited with successfully spreading Christianity throughout Ireland—hence the Christian celebration of his life and name.
Was there really a St. Patrick?
Definitely. However, there are many legends about him that mix with the truth. Did he play a large role in spreading Christianity to Ireland? Yes, absolutely. Did he really drive all the snakes out of Ireland? Probably not, since snakes weren’t native to Ireland to begin with!
In any case, St. Patrick’s impact was significant enough to warrant our modern-day celebrations. Here’s a bit about St. Patrick himself.
A young St. Patrick finds God
The man who would eventually become St. Patrick was born in Britain (part of the Roman Empire at the time) as Maewyn Succat in the late 4th century. His family was Christian, but it’s said that Maewyn himself was an atheist throughout his childhood.
That would change at age 16 (around A.D. 400), when Maewyn was kidnapped from his home on the west coast of Britain by Irish pirates, who proceeded to carry him off to Ireland and force him to work as a shepherd herding sheep. After six years, he escaped his captors, walking nearly 200 miles through the Irish landscape and convincing a ship to carry him with them back to Britain. This harrowing experience certainly had an effect on Maewyn, who was convinced it was the Lord who protected him and delivered him safely home.
St. Patrick Spreads the Gospel
Upon returning home, Maewyn received his call (in a dream) to preach the Gospel—in Ireland, of all places! He spent the next 15 or so years in a monastery in Britain, preparing for his missionary work. When he became a priest, his name was changed to Patricius, and he returned to the land of his captors to begin his teachings.
Although some Christians already lived in Ireland at the time, the country was largely pagan, so spreading a foreign religion was not an easy task. Patricius traveled from village to village to share the teachings of the Lord, and was successful enough to eventually found many churches there.
Why is the shamrock associated with St. Patrick’s Day?
We wear a shamrock on St. Patrick’s Day because, legend says, St. Patrick used its three leaves to explain the Holy Trinity in his teachings. (The Trinity is the Father, the Son, and the Spirit as three divine persons who are one divine being [God].) The truth of the St. Patrick legend, however, is in question, as there is no direct record that the saint actually used the shamrock as a teaching tool.
Note: The symbol of St. Patrick is a three-leaf shamrock, not a four-leaf clover. However, long before the shamrock became associated with St. Patrick’s Day, the four-leaf clover was regarded by ancient Celts as a charm against evil spirits. In the early 1900s, O. H. Benson, an Iowa school superintendent, came up with the idea of using a clover as the emblem for a newly founded agricultural club for children in his area. In 1911, the four-leaf clover was chosen as the emblem for the national club program, later named 4-H. (Quote source here.)
With this background on St. Patrick’s Day, one might wonder how it became associated with partying and drinking green beer. Well, the answer is found in this article published on March 2, 2020, titled, “How Did St. Patrick’s Day Become a Drinking Holiday?” by Bobbi Dempsey, freelance writer, editor and content specialist. She writes:
The holiday somehow transitioned from a religious feast to a day where we drink green beer.
Today, St. Patrick’s Day has become synonymous with drinking and having a good time. But the occasion wasn’t always associated with overindulgence. Those who think St. Patrick’s Day is just about wearing green and enjoying parties and parades might be surprised to learn about the holiday’s origins. Find out 21 things you never knew about St. Patrick’s Day.
History of St. Patrick
St. Patrick is one of the most well-known saints because his special day has become such a cause for celebration, but most people don’t actually know a lot about him. One shocking tidbit: even though he’s so strongly associated with Irish culture and symbolism, he wasn’t actually born in Ireland. In fact, he was born in Roman Britain in the late fourth or early fifth century. (Britain was part of the Roman Empire back then!) As a boy, he was taken to Ireland as a slave.
Because it was so long ago, some of the details of his life are a bit fuzzy and the story varies depending on the source. But according to many versions, he eventually escaped but would return to Ireland years later and become a priest, and then a bishop.
He was largely credited for bringing Christianity to Ireland and helping to convert many of the country’s residents to the religion.
A man of many myths
For some reason, St. Patrick became a magnet for mythology and creative tales over the years. He was credited with everything from driving the snakes out of Ireland to starting an Easter bonfire that could never be extinguished and still burns somewhere in Ireland to this day. Of course, along the way he also somehow became linked to shamrocks, the color green, and a host of other symbols and traditions we now associate with St. Patrick’s Day.
By today’s standards, he doesn’t even meet the criteria of sainthood, since he was never actually canonized by a pope. (That process didn’t even start until a few centuries after his death.) So some sticklers for details will claim that he’s not an “official” saint. While they may technically be right, he’s still the patron saint of Ireland and beloved by his adopted country. These St. Patrick’s Day “facts” are actually false.
How St. Patrick’s Day started
The first observation of St. Patrick’s Day is said to have occurred in the 9th or 10th century. It is observed on March 17 because that was believed to be the date of St. Patrick’s death. It was initially celebrated with reverence and a sort of solemn quiet, and seen more as a religious holiday. Eventually, it became a day that was celebrated with a feast. A few centuries ago, the shift toward more of a fun-filled celebration began to happen. St. Patrick’s Day fell towards the middle of Lent, but Catholics were given a one-day reprieve from the usual fasting and discipline of the season and were allowed to indulge in a wide range of food and drink, including alcohol.
The parties and parades begin
The tradition of celebrating St. Patrick’s Day with the revelry of parties and parades is widely believed to have developed in full force not in Ireland, but in the United States. Irish immigrants were eager to honor their culture and celebrate their national pride. The first St. Patrick’s Day parade in the United States was held in Boston in 1737, and New York City started a parade of its own 25 years later. See how the world celebrates St. Patrick’s Day today.
Essentially, drinking on St. Patrick’s Day was the result of two combining forces: the day of reprieve from Lenten fasting and the indulgence of partying and celebration. Today, it has become a part of secular culture and a popular tradition, one often celebrated with green beer or Irish whiskey. Find out which is correct: St. Patty’s Day vs. St. Paddy’s Day. (Quote source here.)
I hope this brief history of St. Patrick’s Day has been informative. Here are three Irish blessings to go with the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day posted at this link:
May the road rise to meet you,
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
The rains fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of his hand.
May God be with you and bless you:
May you see your children’s children.
May you be poor in misfortune,
Rich in blessings.
May you know nothing but happiness
From this day forward.
May the road rise up to meet you
May the wind be always at your back
May the warm rays of sun fall upon your home
And may the hand of a friend always be near.
May green be the grass you walk on,
May blue be the skies above you,
May pure be the joys that surround you…
And may true . . .
Be the hearts . . .
That love you . . . .
YouTube Video: “May the Road Rise to Meet You” by Celtic Thunder: