St. Patrick’s Day, also known as the Feast of Saint Patrick and St. Paddy's Day, falls every year on March 17, the day of Saint Patrick's death. Here in the U.S., the day is mainly marked by the donning of something green (to avoid being pinched!), drinking plenty of green cocktails, and checking out the year’s most uproarious parades and St. Patrick's Day events.
But the history of St. Patrick’s Day isn't rooted in the 24 hours of green-tinged, shamrock-waving revelry that we know it for today. Many people recognize Saint Patrick as the patron saint of Ireland, but did you know that he wasn't actually born in Ireland? How about the fact that the big parties, parades, and festivities are largely American traditions, only picked up in Ireland in recent history?
To brush up on all your St. Patrick's Day knowledge, we've answered questions frequently asked about the day (and debunked a myth or two). After, you might be curious to know if leprechauns are real and how they became a part of the lore.
Who is St. Patrick?
You might not believe it, but the saint behind the Irish holiday is technically neither a saint nor Irish.
Saint Patrick was born in the fifth century as a citizen of Roman Britain. At the age of 16, he was enslaved and taken to Ireland, where he spent six years in captivity. He then escaped, only to later return to bring Christianity to the people of Ireland—not the kind of light-hearted hijinks you might think would inspire a holiday so devoted to it.
During his life, he became a priest and founded schools, churches, and monasteries throughout the Emerald Isle before his death on March 17, 461 A.D. However, some are surprised to learn that the patron saint and national apostle of Ireland was never canonized as saint by the Catholic Church. This lack of official sainthood is because there was no formal canonization process in the 400s. Calling him "Saint" Patrick is likely to have caught on and stuck over time due to his popular acclaim.
When was the first St. Patrick's Day?
It wasn’t until 1631 that the Church established a feast honoring the Patron Saint of Ireland. Because St. Patrick’s Day falls during Lent, it became a day for Christians to take time off from the abstinent demands of the weeks leading up to Easter. By the 1700s, the holiday had started to take a decidedly more festive turn that its founders had intended.
It was Irish immigrants in the United States who were largely responsible for slowly shifting St. Patrick's Day from a religious observation to a secular one. Boston, with its massive Irish population, held the first parade in 1737, with New York City following suit 25 years later. Today, along with Chicago, which is famed for dyeing its river green since 1962, these cities still offer some of the biggest celebrations dedicated to the man who supposedly drove the snakes out of Ireland.
Why do we wear green on St. Patrick's Day?
It's only since the Irish Rebellion of 1798 that the shade has become associated with the holiday. Blue, which adorned the ancient Irish flag, was first identified with St. Patrick's Day. But the rebels wore green to differentiate themselves from the British, who clothed themselves in red, and the color has since come to denote Ireland and the Irish to all the world. Shamrocks, the national plant of Ireland (which legend says St. Patrick used to explain the Holy Trinity), also became a global signifier of the European island.
Who celebrates St. Patrick's Day?
While celebrating St. Patrick’s Day in the wildly celebratory way we know today is largely the invention of Irish-Americans, Irish in the homeland have started taking to it as well in the past few decades. For example, the earliest parade in Ireland famously kicks off in Dingle just before sunup! It's attended by townsfolk and tourists alike.
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