With Saint Patrick’s Day right around the corner, it’s time to check out some of the fascinating lore and tradition that surrounds this holiday celebrated on March 17th every year. Not only is Saint Patrick’s Day the national holiday of Ireland, but it is also widely celebrated in the U.S., Canada, Great Britain, Australia, and New Zealand. Yet many people don’t know the truth about Saint Patrick, including the fact that he wasn’t even born in Ireland!
Who Was Saint Patrick?
St. Patrick was born in Britain around 400 A.D. (or Scotland; accounts vary) to wealthy parents who were Christians. A group of Irish raiders attacked his father’s estate and kidnapped Patrick when he was 16. They took him to Ireland, which at that time was a land of paganism and druidism. Patrick spent six years as a slave, working as a shepherd, very much isolated from other people. During this time he not only became fluid in Gaelic, the Irish language, but he turned to religion for solace and became a devout Christian.
According to Patrick’s writings, after six years he heard a voice telling him it was time to escape, so he traveled south for 200 miles until he reached the Irish coast where he boarded a ship to Britain. He studied under St. Germain, bishop of Auxerre in France, to help combat paganism, and was ordained a priest and given the name “Patercius” or “Patritius” from the Latin, meaning father of his people. St. Patrick traveled back to Ireland to teach Christianity to the Irish. St. Patrick died on March 17, 460 A.D.
What do Shamrocks have to do with St. Patrick’s Day?
In order to make the people understand the doctrine of the Trinity—that there are three beings who make up one divine God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—St. Patrick drew an analogy by picking a shamrock and showing that its three leaves were on only one stem. The shamrock was already a sacred plant in ancient Ireland because it symbolized the rebirth of Spring. Shamrocks, of course, are green, hence the stipulation that one must wear green on St. Patrick’s Day!
How We Celebrate St. Patrick’s Day?
St. Patrick’s Day, which falls during the Christian season of Lent, has been celebrated by the Irish since the 17th century. Interestingly, Irish soldiers serving in the English military held the first St. Patrick’s Day parade on March 17, 1762 in New York. In 1848, a group of New York Irish aid societies united their parades to form one New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade, the world’s oldest civilian parade and the largest in the county, with more than 150,000 participants featuring Irish music, dance, and more. Other cities including San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, Montreal, Vancouver, and Sydney, also hold annual St. Patrick’s Day parades.
Irish music is also very much a part of St. Patrick’s Day and Irish culture, as the Celts had an oral culture, where religion and history were passed from one generation to another in the form of songs and stories.
Saint Patrick's Day Quiz
Get in the Irish spirit with your child this Saint Patrick’s Day, and learn a little about the green jewel of the Atlantic, with this short round of trivia:
- What is the connection between the snake and St. Patrick?
- “Erin Go Bragh” is a phrase heard often on St. Patrick’s Day. What does it mean?
- Why is corned beef associated with St. Patrick’s Day?
- What are leprechauns, and what do they have to do with St. Patrick’s Day?
- Irish lore says that anyone who kisses the blarney stone, located near this town, with be blessed with the “gift of gab.” What is the town?
- Legend has it that St. Patrick stood atop a hillside in Ireland and banished all the snakes from the country. Ireland actually never had any snakes; the story is a metaphor for the eradication of pagan ideology and the triumph of Christianity.
- “Erin Go Bragh” means “Ireland Forever.”
- Irish immigrants living on the lower East Side of New York substituted cheaper corned beef, which they learned about from their Jewish neighbors, for their traditional meal of Irish bacon.
- Leprechauns, meaning “small-bodied fellows” have their origins in the Celtic belief in fairies. They were known for their trickery used to protect their treasure, the fabled pot of gold. Walt Disney released a film entitled “Darby O’Gill & the Little People,” and leprechauns became both a symbol of Ireland and St. Patrick’s Day.
- The town is Cork.