Most people celebrating Saint Patrick’s Day this March 17th won’t be aware of the true origins of the holiday, or even its true meaning. Aside from celebrating the Irish, the color green and whatever shamrock shakes are made from, what is it really about? How did it evolve into the holiday we celebrate today?
Given the name of the holiday, it might seem obvious that Saint Patrick was Christian, but most people associate it with celebrating Irish culture, rather than Catholicism. Truth be told, that’s not where it began. Saint Patrick was a prominent bishop and missionary in Ireland near the end of the Roman empire in the mid to late 5th century AD.
Known as the Patron Saint Of Ireland and the Apostle Of Ireland, Patrick was instrumental in bringing the Roman Catholic beliefs to Ireland and in subsequent years, Saint Patrick’s Day became a day to commemorate Catholicism in Ireland. Originally, it was a day of feasting and celebration held every year on the day of St. Patrick’s death, although until the 1700s, the holiday didn’t exist in any formal capacity.
Over the years, there has been a great deal of mythologizing of St. Patrick in history.
Saint Patrick Wasn’t Actually Irish
In truth, St. Patrick was taken from his home, either in Britain, Wales or elsewhere, and became a slave to pirates for 6 years. When he was freed, he entered the clergy and later returned to Ireland as a missionary to begin his work.
While he was not in fact Irish by birth, he embodied the spirit of Ireland and a love for the country.
Somewhat ironically, St. Patrick was an immigrant to Ireland the same way so many Irish would later become immigrants in the United States, where modern St. Patrick’s Day was born.
The Modern Holiday Is American
Well, Irish-American. The very first St. Patrick’s Day Parade was held in Boston in 1737, as a celebration of Irish culture in the colonies. It later spread in popularity to Dublin and other American cities, and is now popular in other countries, including many in Europe and even Asia.
In Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day is a national holiday and has been since the beginning of the 20th century, but the first parade wasn’t held in its honour until the 1930s.
In the mid-1990s Ireland began to use St. Patrick’s Day to promote tourism and cultural identity, some say to reclaim the holiday from the United States where it has become a bit tacky. Others in Ireland and even in the US are concerned that the holiday has become too secular.
Today St. Patrick isn’t much of a thought at all in our celebrations of the famous holiday. Mostly we drink Guinness beer and enjoy dressing like Leprechauns. Sure there is the traditional Celtic music, dancing and dress to provide some touches of authenticity, but those touches are largely absent in Ireland’s own celebrations. What St. Patrick’s Day has become now is largely symbolic, although it’s still a great excuse to have some fun while spending time with friends.