WHY DO WE CELEBRATE ST. PATRICK’S DAY?
The primary reason for the celebration is to commemorate the feast day of Saint Patrick, a Christian missionary who’s credited with bringing Christianity to Ireland and who later on became its patron Saint. It is held every March 17th which is believed to coincide with the time of his death at Saul in 461, the site where he built his first church.
Saint Patrick was born about 385 in Scotland. His parents, Calpurnius (A Roman-British army officer) and Conchessa, were Catholic Romans living in Britain in charge of the colonies.
At the age of fourteen, a band of pirates landed in south Wales and kidnapped him along with many others and sold him into slavery in Ireland a land of Druids and pagans. He was there for 6 years, mostly imprisoned where he learned the Irish language and customs.
When Patrick was twenty, he had a dream in which God told him to leave Ireland by going to the coast. He escaped and found a boat that took him back to Britain and his family where he studied, became a priest, and, later, a bishop.
After becoming Bishop he had another dream in which he was called to return to Ireland to tell the Irish about God. So with the Pope’s blessing, he set out for Ireland where he converted the Gaelic Irish, who were then mostly Pagans, to Christianity. Patrick was very successful and through active preaching, made important converts even among the royal families which upset the Celtic Druids. Patrick was arrested several times, but escaped each time.
For over 20 years he traveled throughout Ireland, establishing monasteries, schools and churches. He developed a native clergy, fostered the growth of monasticism, established dioceses, and held church councils. He died on March 17, 461.
While he is also known for using the shamrock (a three-leaf clover) to explain the Trinity, he is best known for driving the snakes from Ireland. While it’s true there are no snakes in Ireland, most likely there never were. As in many old pagan religions, serpent symbols were common and often worshiped. Driving the snakes from Ireland was probably symbolic of putting an end to their pagan rites. While not the first to bring Christianity to Ireland, Patrick is said to have encountered the Druids at Tara and abolished their pagan rites. The story holds that he converted the warrior chiefs and princes, baptizing them and thousands of their subjects in the “Holy Wells” that still bear this name.
Since around the ninth or 10th century, people in Ireland have been observing the Roman Catholic feast day of St. Patrick on March 17.
Interestingly, however, the first parade held to honor St. Patrick’s Day took place not in Ireland but in the United States. On March 17, 1762, Irish soldiers serving in the English military marched through New York City. Along with their music, the parade helped the soldiers reconnect with their Irish roots, as well as with fellow Irishmen serving in the English army.
This special day of celebration is grounded fundamentally on religion. Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans and Roman Catholics are some of the religious groups that held this special festivity every year. Today, it is celebrated more as a secularized event rather than a religious observance. It has been transformed into a lively, colorful and joyous festivity marked by parades featuring performers, bands and floats.
Saint Patrick’s Day has come to be associated with all things Irish, including luck, rainbows, leprechauns, shamrocks, anything green, gold and, of course, Guinness. It is celebrated by those who merely want an excuse for excessive partying and for those of faith who use St. Patrick’s Day as a traditional day for spiritual renewal and prayer.
But why the icons like the green color, the tri-leafed shamrock, the leprechaun, or the pot of gold?
THE MAGIC SHAMROCK
The first reference to the Shamrock dates from 1571, and in written Irish, as seamrog—pronounced sham-rog, from 1707. As a badge to be worn on the lapel on the Saint’s feast day, it is referred to for the first time as late as 1681. The Shamrock was used as an emblem by the Irish Volunteers in the era of Grattan’s Parliament in the 1770′s, before ’98 and The Act of Union.
Three is Ireland’s magic number. Hence the Shamrock. Crone, Mother and Virgin. Love, Valour and Wit…Faith, Hope and Charity. Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Numbers played an important role in Celtic symbolism. Three was the most sacred and magical number. It multiplies to nine, which is also said to be sacred.
The Leprechaun is an Irish fairy. He looks like a small, old man (about 2 feet tall), often dressed like a shoemaker, with a cocked hat and a leather apron. According to legend, leprechauns are aloof and unfriendly, live alone, and pass the time making shoes. They also possess a hidden pot of gold. Treasure hunters can often track down a leprechaun by the sound of his shoemaker’s hammer. If caught, he can be forced (with the threat of bodily violence) to reveal the whereabouts of his treasure, but the captor must keep their eyes on him every second. If the captor’s eyes leave the leprechaun (and he often tricks them into looking away), he vanishes and all hopes of finding the treasure are lost.
THE BLARNEY STONE
The Blarney Stone is a stone set in the wall of the Blarney Castle tower in the Irish village of Blarney. Kissing the stone is supposed to bring the kisser the gift of gab and eloquence (blarney). The castle was built in 1446 by the Lord of Muskerr. Thousands of tourists a year still visit the castle. The origins of the Blarney Stone’s magical properties aren’t clear, but one legend says that an old woman cast a spell on the stone to reward a king who had saved her from drowning. Kissing the stone while under the spell gave the king the ability to speak sweetly and convincingly. It’s tough to reach the stone, it’s between the main castle wall and the parapet. Kissers have to stretch to their back and bend backward (and downward), holding iron bars for support. Tip, be certain to carefully secure whatever is in your pockets
WEARING of GREEN
Originally, the color associated with Saint Patrick was blue. Over the years the color green and its association with Saint Patrick’s day grew. Saint Patrick’s Day has come to be associated with everything Irish: anything green and gold, shamrocks and luck. Most importantly, to those who celebrate its intended meaning, St. Patrick’s Day is a traditional day for spiritual renewal and offering prayers for missionaries worldwide. Since the holiday began in Ireland, it is believed that as the Irish spread out around the world, they took with them their history and celebrations. The biggest observance of all is, of course, in Ireland. With the exception of restaurants and pubs, almost all businesses close on March 17th. Being a religious holiday as well, many Irish attend mass, where March 17th is the traditional day for offering prayers for missionaries worldwide before the serious celebrating begins. In American cities with a large Irish population, St. Patrick’s Day is a very big deal. Big cities and small towns alike celebrate with parades, “wearing of the green,” music and songs, Irish food and drink, and activities for kids such as crafts, coloring and games.
GROWTH OF ST. PATRICK’S DAY CELEBRATIONS
In the early 1800’s, Irish patriotism among American immigrants flourished, prompting the rise of so-called “Irish Aid” societies like the Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick and the Hibernian Society. Each group would hold annual parades featuring bagpipes (which actually first became popular in the Scottish and British army’s) and drums. In 1848, several New York Irish Aid societies decided to unite their parades to form one official New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Today, that parade is the world’s oldest civilian parade and reputed to be the largest in the United States, with over 150,000 participants. Each year, nearly 3 million people line the 1.5-mile parade route to watch the procession, which takes more than five hours. Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and Savannah also celebrate the day with parades involving between 10,000 and 20,000 participants each.
THE GREEN MACHINE
Up until the mid-19th century, most Irish immigrants in America were members of the Protestant middle class. When the Great Potato Famine hit Ireland in 1845, close to 1 million poor and uneducated Irish Catholics began pouring into America to escape starvation. Despised for their alien religious beliefs and unfamiliar accents by the American Protestant majority, the immigrants had trouble finding even menial jobs. When Irish Americans in the country’s cities took to the streets on St. Patrick’s Day to celebrate their heritage, newspapers portrayed them in cartoons as drunk, violent monkeys. The American Irish soon began to realize, however, that their large and growing numbers endowed them with a political power that had yet to be exploited. They started to organize, and their voting bloc, known as the “green machine,” became an important swing vote for political hopefuls. Suddenly, annual St. Patrick’s Day parades became a show of strength for Irish Americans, as well as a must-attend event for a slew of political candidates. In 1948, President Harry S. Truman attended New York City’s St. Patrick’s Day parade, a proud moment for the many Irish Americans whose ancestors had to fight stereotypes and racial prejudice to find acceptance in the New World.
St. Patrick’s Day, although not a legal holiday anywhere in the United States, is nonetheless widely recognized and celebrated throughout the country. It is primarily celebrated as a celebration of Irish and Irish American culture; celebrations include prominent displays of the color green, feasting, copious consumption of alcohol, religious observances, and numerous parades. The holiday has been celebrated on the North American continent since the late eighteenth century, prior to the American Revolution.
Although St. Patrick was born nearly 1600 years ago, his presence is still felt today around the world
HAPPY ST. PATRICK’S DAY