Green beer, green food, green clothes. Is there more to Saint Patrick's Day?
It’s a day to rival New Year’s Eve and Mardi Gras. In cities all over the world, from Dublin to Sydney to Tokyo, people flock to the streets to celebrate all things Irish and to indulge in parades, beer, and the color green. In fact, some of a child’s earliest memories might even be getting pinched for failing to wear green on March 17—known across the globe as Saint Patrick’s Day.
But how did this simple feast day, which originated on a small island in the Northern Atlantic in honor of a local celebrity, become a widespread celebration that spans the globe?
The History of Saint Patrick’s Day
The legacy of Saint Patrick (approximately 385–461 AD) is found, in part, in the celebration of his Saint’s Day, which corresponds to the day of his death, March 17.1 This day was originally celebrated only in Ireland and was considered a more somber day of remembrance than its modern incarnation.
Around the ninth and tenth centuries, over four hundred years after Saint Patrick’s death, the people of Ireland began to celebrate a feast day to honor him and his missionary efforts in Ireland.2 Though a feast day certainly marked a time of remembrance for what the saint did, it also granted a reprieve from work and provided a church-condoned reason for celebrating—albeit in moderation.
This is a key element to why Saint Patrick’s Day became so important to practicing Christians. March 17 falls during the Christian season known as Lent. During Lent, Christians historically gave up something for a period of forty days (excluding Sundays) until Easter. Saint Patrick’s Day essentially provided an extra “Sunday” where the self-imposed restrictions of Lent were lessened.3
The Development of Saint Patrick’s Day
Saint Patrick’s Day continued to be celebrated in the same fashion up until the 1700s. But as the Irish migrated to North America and the rest of the world, they brought with them their Saint Patrick. While it is unclear and debated (in true Irish fashion) how the modern incarnation of Saint Patrick’s Day began, what is clear is that one of the first parades—which surprisingly was not held in Ireland—was put on by Irish soldiers stationed in New York as part of the British Army in 1762.
These parades were a way for the soldiers to remember their roots while being away from home for long periods of time. Outside of New York, Saint Patrick’s Day parades began to spring up all over the world in places like Chicago, Montreal, and Sydney. Noticeably, like in New York, most of the parades were held in places where the Irish had immigrated.
These parades became even more key to maintaining Irish identity and solidarity after the Great Potato Famine in 1845, which devastated the population of Ireland. Over one million Irish men and women were forced to emigrate from their ancestral homeland to the United States or other British colonies.4 Before the Potato Famine, Ireland’s population was about eight million strong; presently, even after decades of rebuilding and growth, the population stands at 4.5 million.5 Such was the extensive damage wrought by the Famine.
This all makes sense, but where did the green and shamrocks come from? In the eighteenth century, Irish Catholics began wearing shamrocks (which are actually a variety of clover and other three-leaf plants) on Saint Patrick’s Day in remembrance of the story of Saint Patrick explaining the Trinity by using the three leaves of the clover.6 The shamrocks would be worn in the hat throughout the day to bring good luck and then thrown over the left shoulder at the end of the day.7
Wearing shamrocks then morphed into the wearing of pins in the shape of shamrocks, which further gave way to the wearing of green in general. Though this eliminated the need for shamrocks, the festive plants are still widely in use every March 17—though now they are more often made of plastic!
Saint Patrick’s Day Today
Currently, Saint Patrick’s Day is one of the most celebrated days throughout the world. While the original parades in New York, Chicago, and Montreal are still going strong, there has been a marked increase in many non-Irish-influenced countries celebrating good ole Saint Patrick. In 1992, for example, Tokyo held its first Saint Patrick’s Day parade and has continued to do so every year since.8
This widespread influence of Irish culture has even helped the Republic of Ireland redefine what Saint Patrick’s Day is. They have transformed it from a purely religious holiday to a festival lasting several days, where Ireland and everything Irish is celebrated with the goal of promoting “an accurate image of Ireland as a creative, professional, and sophisticated country with wide appeal.”9
Although it is still a feast day to commemorate Saint Patrick and his successful efforts to bring Christianity to Ireland, Saint Patrick’s Day has become much more than just that. It connects all people of Irish decent with their roots in celebration of a culture that has done much for the entire world. The day has been cause for much revelry between both those who are ethnically Irish and those who are not. As the saying goes, on Saint Patrick’s Day, everyone is Irish.