Few festivals transcend across different ages and cultures as St. Patrick's Day does. Celebrated annually on March 17, the Irish holiday is filled with fun traditions that seem to appeal to people across the globe. For those wondering about the clergyman, whose death anniversary the world celebrates with such abandon, and the origin of some of the fun customs, here is a brief history.
Who was St. Patrick?
While St. Patrick's Day is now one of Ireland's most popular holidays, the eponymous clergyman it honors was born in Great Britain. Born around 385 AD as Maewyn Succat, he was kidnaped and brought to Ireland at the age of 16, and forced to work on a sheep farm. The young man escaped and returned to Britain six years later, where he joined a monastery. After spending 15 years there, the now renamed Patricius ("Father of the Citizens") returned to Ireland to spread Christianity to the country’s mostly pagan population. While there is some dispute about the exact year of his death, historians all agree that it was on March 17. A relatively-unknown bishop when he died, the clergyman transformed into a legendary figure over the next few centuries as tales of his magical powers, including ridding Ireland of all snakes, spread. According to the folklore, the reptiles attacked St. Patrick while he was fasting, causing the holy man to get angry and chase them all out to sea. By the seventh century, St. Patrick had been elevated to the primary patron saint of Ireland, an honor afforded to only two other clergymen - Brigid of Kildare and Columba.
Leprechauns and shamrocks
For children, looking for leprechauns is one of the most fun St. Patrick's Day traditions. According to the legend, the little bearded men not only know the location of the pots of gold hidden at the end of the rainbow, but also have the power to grant three wishes when found. The only catch? The crafty fairies have yet to be sighted, let alone caught, by anyone.
Many St. Patrick's Day revelers wear a three-leaf clover, or shamrock. The symbol of Irish heritage was believed to have been used by St. Patrick to explain the holy trinity - with each leaf representing the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit - when trying to convert the Irish into Christianity.
On St. Patrick's Day, everything, from the Chicago River to the White House fountain, to famous monuments, such as the Eiffel Tower in Paris and the Opera House in Sydney, turn emerald. However, as it turns out, blue, not green, was the color of choice, when the Order of St. Patrick was established in the 1780s. Green was adopted once it became associated with Irish nationalism in the 1790s and considered a good representation of the country’s lush green landscape.
While nobody knows where the tradition of pinching those not wearing green comes from, experts speculate the ritual originated in the US to give people a green bruise. It could also stem from the Irish folklore that pinching makes people invisible to leprechauns, enabling them to easily capture the elusive creatures.
Though cities across the world stage parades, it is New York City, which officially started the tradition in 1762, that hosts the world's biggest march. Every year, over 2 million spectators line up along Fifth Avenue to watch the six-hour-long, volunteer-organized, extravaganza featuring bands, bagpipes, dancers, and between 150,000 to 250,000 participants. Though the Dublin, Ireland parade, which began in 1998, is not as big, the city does organize a week-long celebration, which attracts over a million party-goers annually.
Corned beef and cabbage colcannon
In the US, St. Patrick's Day revelers feast on corned beef and cabbage colcannon – potatoes mashed up with cabbage and then mixed with onions and butter or cream. While colcannon can be traced back to Ireland, the Irish prefer bacon on the holiday, not beef. However, the first Irish immigrants to the US, unable to afford bacon, substituted it with the cheapest meat available at the time - beef – and the tradition has stuck since.
Resources: wikipedia.org, usatoday.com, Fodor's travel guide, history.com