By McKenna Larson
The Saint Himself
The legend of St. Patrick states that he was born sometime during the 5th century in Britain before being sold to Ireland as a slave. Eventually he was able to escape and found solace in the Catholic Church. He returned to Ireland to “save” the people there by spreading Christianity. The classic story of St. Patrick also states that as one of his miracles he banished all snakes from Ireland. Evidence shows that there never have been any snakes in Ireland, and therefore no reptiles for the Saint to banish. While often taken literally, the snake in this story actually symbolizing paganism and pagan religious practice, specifically those of the native Celtic people. St. Patrick became the patron saint to Ireland because he successfully proselytized the people into accepting Catholicism.
The feast of St. Patrick was widely celebrated by Irish Catholics in the ninth century and continued to be a national celebration, although a typically somber one, to honor the apostle of Ireland.
Coming to America
The first St. Patrick’s Day parade was in the United States by an Irish vicar to the Spanish colony of St. Augustine, Florida in 1601. The predecessor to modern St. Patrick’s Day parades in New York occurred when Irish soldiers fighting for the English during the American Revolution marched in New York to celebrate in 1772.
The Feast of St. Patrick was largely brought to the United States by Irish Catholic immigrants fleeing the potato famine of the 1840’s. The holiday was celebrated by the immigrants, to the mockery of other Americans who saw them as less than second class citizens. Eventually, enough Irish Catholics were in cities to have political power and were able to institute St. Patrick’s Day festivities, including increasingly popular parades that drew political candidates to the growing voter base before them. Into the 20th century the festivities spread throughout the United States until now, nearly every American celebrates the holiday in some way.
The shamrock is an iconic symbol of the holiday that has origins in Celtic paganism as a symbol of spring returning after winter. The three-leaf clovers are also said to mirror the Holy Trinity of the Catholic Church representing three aspects of God. It is rumored that St. Patrick used to the native plant to teach the Irish people about his belief system. The shamrock rose in prominence as a symbol of Irish nationalism and Irish Catholicism as the English began taking over lands and outlawing the religion.
Leprechauns, the tiny tricksters hiding pots of gold, have also become synonymous with the March festival, but they have little or nothing to do with the Saint himself. The leprechaun is another holdover from pagan tradition and belief in faeries that interacted with humans, often with disastrous results for the humans themselves. The minor Celtic faeries could be connected to the Catholic holiday through the Christian takeover of pagan tradition in the earlier centuries of the Church.
The official color of St. Patrick’s Day is currently green, with school children and adults dawning the color on the holiday to avoid being pinched. However, the original color associated with St. Patrick and his feast was a royal blue, indicating his status as the Patron Saint of Ireland. During increasing tension with England in the 19th and 20th century, the color green was used by Irish rebellions as a symbol of their national pride, similar to the shamrock. The color was eventually associated with their Saint as well.
The modern celebration of St. Patrick’s Day is usually an all-day party full of parades, green “kiss me, I’m Irish” t-shirts, and lots of beer. Until the 1970’s the celebration was more reserved and religious in nature, with pubs being closed. After successful advertising by Budweiser, beer started to become a staple March 17th. In 1995, the Irish government began to advertise St. Patrick’s Day as a way to bring tourism to Ireland and show the culture. Now the symbols of the holiday are synonymous with March despite the twisting history of the holiday. St. Patrick’s influence may not fit the standards of his 5th century Catholicism but his legacy is recognized throughout the world.