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 to wealthy parents. Ireland wasn’t part of Britain at that stage. At the time, the British Isles were occupied by the Romans, which included St. Patrick and his parents, although it is uncertain whether his family was part of the Roman aristocracy or of Celtic descent. There are only two documents in known existence with his signature, which he penned in Latin, signing “Patricius” as his name.
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 and turned to his religion, becoming a devout Christian. After a dream in which he said a voice spoke to him, claiming it was God’s, Patrick escaped Ireland. He had to walk nearly 200 miles to get to the coast to return to Britain. Upon arriving in his homeland, though, an angel appeared in another dream telling him to return to the land of his imprisonment, but this time as a missionary. He trained for 15 years and it wasn’t until after he was ordained as a priest that he was finally sent back to Ireland.
Some say Patrick is responsible for bringing Christianity to the land of the lucky Irish, but others say he ministered to Christians who were already there while also converting those who were not yet believers. He was successful in gathering more Christians partly because he chose to incorporate some of the country’s language and culture into his teaching, making people feel more at ease.
Although known as St. Patrick, he was never canonized by the Catholic Church as a saint. At the time, there was no formal canonization process.
The Evolution of St. Patrick’s Day
St. Patrick is believed to have died on March 17, 461 AD. The Irish have been observing 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. It’s believed that 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 serving in the English military marched in New York City in honor of the patron saint. This sparked future parades like those we have today.
The color green was not originally associated with the day. In fact, knights in the Order of St. Patrick wore a color known as St. Patrick’s blue. It is thought that the color green gained this link around the 18th century, stemming from the supporters of Irish independence who used green to represent their cause.
Corned beef and cabbage are considered a traditional dish for the holiday; however, in Ireland, a type of bacon is actually the customary meat for the day. Corned beef came about in the late 19th century when Irish immigrants couldn’t afford the traditional fare and so they substituted it with corned beef, which they purchased from their Jewish neighbors in New York City’s Lower East Side.
Why is the shamrock considered lucky? 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 American gold rushes, but this is nothing to do with four-leaf clovers which are rare and so finding one is considered lucky.