NEW YORK — On March 17, everyone gets to be Irish for one day. Created to mark the traditional death date of St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated in more countries than any other national festival. While it has its roots in religion, today the festival is largely secular and celebratory.
The holiday honors the saint who brought Christianity to Ireland, but it has grown to celebrate the Irish heritage and culture overall. St. Patrick’s Day usually falls during Lent, a period when alcohol historically has been frowned upon, and sometimes it occurs on a Friday, when orthodox Catholics abstain from meat. But often a special dispensation by Catholic dioceses allows drinking and the traditional meal of corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day.
Holiday celebrations are marked by carnival-like parades and festivals and the wearing of the green from shamrock accessories to green clothing. Today, some of the biggest St. Patrick’s Day parades are not even in Ireland but in the United States and the holiday has become a global phenomenon. The largest parade is in New York City, which has been held continually every year since 1762, more than a decade before the Declaration of Independence was signed. Given the surge of Irish citizens who settled in New York City, especially after the Great Famine in Ireland, this is perhaps not surprising. Today, New York’s parade has over 150,000 participants.
St. Patricks Day is ripe with traditions, myths and legends. One of the most surprising facts was that Saint Patrick was not Irish but born in Norman Britain to a well-to-do Christian family around the year 385 A.D. He was kidnapped at age 16 and forced to tend sheep in Ireland for seven years. According to the lore, he became highly religious during this time and even after he returned home, he felt a calling to return to Ireland and convert people to Christianity.
St. Patrick’s feast day became a celebration for Irish people in Europe by about the 9th to 10th centuries. It was officially added to the liturgical calendar in the early 1600s and became a holy day of obligation for Roman Catholics in Ireland. It wasn’t until 1903, however, that St. Patrick’s Day was named an official public holiday in Ireland, largely due to the Bank Holiday (Ireland) Act that year.
Customs associated with the holiday include “drowning the shamrock.” According to the Good Food Ireland website, the shamrock, which comes from the Gaelic word, “seamrog” (summer plant), is actually a common weed but was adopted as a national symbol of Ireland. Both its three-leaf and rarer four-leaf shamrock version are said to represent the “luck of the Irish.”
“There’s no doubt everyone will be wearing a fresh shamrock on St. Patrick’s Day. It’s synonymous with the Saint and his feast day,” a blog on the website explains. The shamrock has its roots in the church, with three leaves signifying the Holy Trinity. Drowning the shamrock on St. Patrick’s Day is a historical custom with legend saying that St. Patrick once ordered a whiskey in a bar that came up short. He allegedly told the bartender he had a devil in the cellar that thrived on the bar’s cheating ways and urged him to not cheat his customers. St. Patrick is said to have come back later, only to get a whiskey filled to the brim and proclaiming that henceforth whiskey shall be consumed on his feast day. People would drink the whisky to toast St. Patrick and then either drink the shamrock or throw it over their shoulders for luck.
Green ribbons/hats/pins and shamrocks have been donned on St Patrick’s Day since the late 17th century, and the color has been synonymous with Ireland from the 11th century. The use of the color green even extends to waters and buildings. In 1962, Chicago officials put green dye in the Chicago River green for the holiday. Other cities have lit up skyscrapers and iconic buildings in shamrock green, like The Empire State Building in New York, the Sydney Opera House and Niagara Falls.
Another legend involving St. Patrick, holds that the saint stood on a hill, wearing green clothing, and commanded that all snakes be gone. In reality, given that Ireland is surrounded by cold ocean waters, snakes would never have migrated here.
Besides corned beef and cabbage, traditional holiday foods include shepherd’s pie and Irish soda bread. McDonald’s even gets in the act, celebrating in 2020 the 50th anniversary of its green-colored Shamrock Shake, which likely has as many fans as haters.
Whether you were born in Ireland or you aren’t but happily put on your “Kiss Me I’m Irish” T-shirt once a year, St. Patrick’s Day offers many traditions to celebrate. If you have the opportunity to visit Ireland, make your way to Blarney Castle near County Cork and smooch to the Blarney Stone (Cloch na Blarnan in Irish), where legend says you will be bestowed with the gift of gab.
Pour some Guinness or a minty shake and, as the Irish toast goes, Slainte!