Saint Patrick's Day, which is celebrated annually on March 17, is a global favorite. And rightfully so, given the holiday's fun traditions, which include pinching people not wearing green and chasing after elusive leprechauns to snare pots of gold. How did the death anniversary of this once-unknown saint become so popular? Read on:
Given that St. Patrick's Day is one of Ireland's biggest holidays, it would be reasonable to assume that the clergyman, whose death it commemorates, was extremely important. However, as it turns out, St. Patrick was not even Irish. Born in what is now modern-day England around 387 AD, Maewyn Succat, as he was then called, was kidnaped by pirates at the age of 16 and put to work on Ireland's sheep farms. Six years later, Succat escaped to England, where he joined a monastery.
After spending fifteen years there, the now renamed Patricius ("Father of the Citizens") returned to Ireland to bring Christianity to the country's mostly pagan population. Largely unknown at the time of his death on March 17, sometime between 461 AD and 493 AD, St. Patrick rose to fame after tales of his heroic achievements, which included driving out all the snakes out of Ireland, began to emerge. By the seventh century, the once-obscure bishop's status had been elevated to the primary patron saint of Ireland, an honor given to just two other clergymen – St. Brigid of Kildare and St. Columba of Derry.
Did St. Patrick really chase out the snakes from Ireland?
According to ancient Irish folklore, St. Patrick banished all snakes into the sea after the reptiles attacked him during a 40-day fast he undertook while perched on top of a hill. However, experts argue that Ireland is among a handful of countries — including Iceland, Greenland, Hawaii, New Zealand, parts of Canada, northern Russia, and Antarctica — that has never had snakes. Scientists believe the most recent Ice Age, which ended 10,000 years ago, made the island too cold for the reptiles to survive. When the ice melted, the surrounding seas then made it impossible for them to ever reside in the country. Scholars suggest the snakes were symbolic, a metaphor for the druids, whom St. Patrick is said to have driven out of Ireland when he established Christianity there.
How green became the color of choice
Though green is now synonymous with the Irish holiday, it was not part of the original tradition. When King George III established the Order of St. Patrick in 1783, his followers donned blue. Green, deemed a good representation of the country's lush green hills, became the norm in the 1790s after the holiday became associated with Irish nationalism.
Nobody knows for sure how the tradition of pinching people not wearing green on St. Patrick's Day began. Some believe it was started in the US to give them a green bruise. Others think it may stem from Irish folklore, which asserts that pinching makes people invisible to leprechauns, enabling them to easily capture the crafty creatures.
Three-leaf clovers, or shamrocks, are a common sight on St. Patrick's Day. Legend has it that St. Patrick used the leaves as an educational symbol to explain the Holy Trinity — God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit — to nonbelievers as he converted the Irish to Christianity in the fifth century. Many people also seek out the rare four-leaf clovers believed to represent hope, faith, love, and happiness.
Chasing after leprechauns
For many, St.Patrick's Day is all about finding leprechauns — shoemakers of the fairy world who purportedly know the location of a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. According to Irish myths, leprechauns also have the power to grant their captors three wishes. Unfortunately, the rogue fairies are extremely elusive and have yet to be sighted, let alone captured.
Parades and other celebrations
No St. Patrick's Day celebration is complete without a parade. Though most US cities and towns host a procession, few compare to the one in New York City. The five-hour-long, volunteer-organized extravaganza along Fifth Avenue features over 150,000 participants and attracts more than two million spectators. Though the parade in Dublin, Ireland, is not as impressive, the city does hold a week-long celebration that attracts over a million people. The world's biggest landmarks, including the Sydney Opera House, Paris' Eiffel Tower, and the Great Wall of China, mark the Irish holiday by turning "green." Unfortunately, this year, all the fun celebrations have had to be canceled as countries worldwide scramble to contain the COVID-19 outbreak.
In the US, the holiday is celebrated with a traditional feast of corned beef and colcannon — potatoes mashed with cabbage and then mixed with onions and butter or cream. The custom is believed to have been started by early Irish immigrants who could only afford meat once a week. Since beef was cheap, it became the protein of choice. However, don't expect to see the Irish in Ireland dining on the same fare! They typically indulge in bacon and lamb, and would have most likely consumed pork and potatoes or soda bread and hot Irish stew back in the day.