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The History of St. Patrick’s Day

On March 17, people around the world will celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, paying tribute to Irish culture and heritage with parades, green clothing, shamrocks and countless gallons of beer and whiskey. However, the holiday as it’s celebrated today might come as a shock to the saint himself.

Who was St. Patrick?

Most of what we know about St. Patrick comes from a pair of writings he left behind. Beyond that, historians have had to sift through a great deal of legend surrounding his life. A Roman citizen and resident of Britain, Patrick was born sometime in the late fourth century. As a teenager, he was abducted by raiders and sold into slavery in Ireland. He eventually escaped and returned to Britain. At some point during this time he embraced the Christian faith, then became a priest and returned to Ireland to spread Christianity. Patrick’s work led much of Ireland’s populace to convert from paganism and join the Roman Catholic Church.   

How did St. Patrick’s Day get so popular?

According to tradition, Patrick died on March 17. He was later canonized as the patron saint of Ireland and by the 10th century, the church had set the date of his death as a religious feast day. By the 17th century, St. Patrick’s Day was widely observed in Ireland — but mainly as a religious holiday bearing little resemblance to its current form.

St. Patrick’s Day began its ascent to popularity in the 18th century. As more and more Irish immigrants settled in America — where they were often greeted with hostility — they turned to St. Patrick’s Day as a way to celebrate where they came from and to express pride in their heritage. According to Smithsonian Magazine, the first St. Patrick’s Day parade was held in Boston in 1737. New York’s first parade came 25 years after that. Other cities with large Irish-American populations gradually followed suit.

Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, St. Patrick’s Day transformed into a widespread secular celebration complete with huge parades and new traditions. As the holiday exploded in popularity, even Americans who weren’t of Irish descent began to feel comfortable taking part in the revelry.

Ireland itself adopted St. Patrick’s Day as a national holiday in 1903. However, History.com points out that Ireland didn’t embrace the American-style celebration until the 1990s, when the Irish government realized the holiday’s potential to attract tourists and show off the country’s culture.

What’s the history behind wearing green?

Today’s St. Patrick’s Day celebrations include fun traditions like wearing green and drinking large quantities of beer and whiskey. Most of these traditions are fairly recent and don’t have much to do with the actual St. Patrick.

For example, people didn’t always wear green on St. Patrick’s Day. According to Time Magazine, the color wasn’t associated with Ireland until the Great Irish Rebellion of 1641, when a dissident military commander led Irish rebels against the English under a green flag. In the late 18th century, as Irish nationalism spread, wearing green became a way to express defiance. As immigrants brought these attitudes with them to America, wearing green on St. Patrick’s Day became another way to show pride in their heritage.

As you’re hoisting a pint, singing an Irish tune or donning a green top hat during this year’s St. Patrick’s Day festivities, take a moment to reflect on the holiday’s history. While it’s strayed far from its roots as a religious feast, St. Patrick’s Day remains an unparalleled celebration of Irish (and Irish-American) culture — and that culture’s influence on the world.

This article is presented by BMW of Cincinnati North in Cincinnati, Ohio.

- + Disclaimers