When we think of St. Patrick’s Day, we imagine wearing green, leprechauns looking for their pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, shamrocks, and eating corned beef and cabbage. But where did these traditions come from and just who was St. Patrick?
St. Patrick Wasn’t Irish — and Wasn’t a Saint
St. Patrick was born in Britain. At the time, the British Isles were occupied by the Romans.
Irish raiders attacked his family’s estate when Patrick was only 16, taking him back to Ireland as a prisoner. He spent six years in captivity, where he worked as a shepherd. He turned to religion, becoming a devout Christian.
Patrick escaped Ireland after a dream, saying God had spoken to him. When he got back to Britain, though, an angel appeared in another dream, telling him to return to Ireland, but this time as a missionary. He trained for 15 years and was ordained as a priest before he finally went back to Ireland.
Some say Patrick brought Christianity to the Irish, but others say there were already Christians there. He gathered more Christians partly because he used some of the country’s language and culture in his teaching, making people feel more at ease.
Although known as St. Patrick, he was never made a saint by the Catholic Church. At the time, there was no formal way of making people into saints.
The Evolution of St. Patrick’s Day
The Irish have observed this day since the ninth or tenth century as the Roman Catholic feast day of St. Patrick. Instead of pinching people for not wearing green, they spent time in Church during the mornings and held a feast later in the day.
On March 17, 1601, the first St. Patrick’s Day parade was held in what is now St. Augustine, Florida. Over a century later, on March 17, 1772, Irish soldiers marched in New York City to honor him. This sparked parades like those we have today.
According to the legend, St. Patrick used the three leaves of a shamrock to explain the Holy Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). A shamrock is a three-leaf clover, not to be confused with the four-leaf clover. The Irish are often called “lucky” due to their mining history in the gold rushes, but this is nothing to do with four-leaf clovers which are rare, and so finding one is lucky.