Why Do We Celebrate St. Patrick’s Day?


Every year on March 17, people around the world wear green or risk getting pinched. Shamrocks are displayed in store windows, buttons saying “Kiss me I’m Irish” are worn (mostly by people you don’t want to kiss), bars serve green beer and even a river in Chicago gets dyed green. What is that about?

Most people will say they do these things to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, without giving any real explanation as to why. If one were to simply go on the way St. Patrick’s life is celebrated, you’d think he must have been the wildest of all saints. That’s not even close to the truth.

To begin with, Patrick wasn’t Irish and he wasn’t named Patrick. He’s not a canonized saint by the Catholic church. The stories about him driving all the snakes out of Ireland have a credibility problem, as there never were any snakes in Ireland to begin with. But why let facts get in the way of a good party?

St. Patrick’s Day began as a 17th century religious celebration to honor the life of St. Patrick and Christianity’s arrival in Ireland. This celebration, or “Feast Day” took place on March 17, the anniversary day of Patrick’s death in A.D. 461. It only took 1,300-some-odd years, but the people of Ireland finally recognized his good works in his adopted home.

The man known today as St. Patrick was born in Roman Britain in the late fourth century. He was named Maewyn Succat by his father, who was a deacon in the early Christian church. At 16, Patrick was kidnapped by Irish pirates and enslaved as a shepherd in Ireland for six years. It was during this time he gained his faith and began praying daily for help from God.

According to Patrick’s autobiography Confessio, he received a vision from God about how to escape. He undertook a 200-mile journey to the coast and received passage on a ship that took him home and reunited him with his family. He decided to dedicate his life to God, and studied for the priesthood in France. It is at this point, when he became a priest, that he took on the name Patrick.

Following a vision that he had to bring Christianity to the pagan and druidic people of Ireland, he returned to the place of his former enslavement. Still with no green beer in sight, the Irish ran Patrick off the mainland to a group of small islands where he preached and gained followers. He eventually moved back to Ireland and preached Christian ideologies for the rest of his life.

Patrick is sometimes said to have baptized over 100,000 people, which means if he lived another 40 years that would be just short of seven people per day (this part of his legend may have been told by the same person who told the one about the snakes). Patrick is also credited with the creation of more than 300 churches in Ireland.

So, how did shamrocks become associated with St. Patrick? The story goes that Patrick taught the concept of the Holy Trinity using the three-leafed shamrock, already a sacred plant to the Druids, as an illustration. Even so, it took another 1,400 years before people started wearing them as part of the celebration of his life.

St. Patrick’s shamrock played an important role in changing the colors of Ireland as a nation. When the shamrock was associated with the St. Patrick Feast Day, the old blue colors were switched for “The Wearing of the Green,” as the song goes during the Irish Rebellion in 1798. Green became the color of Irish solidarity. Later, Irish immigrants in city of Chicago expressed their solidarity in 1962 when they first dyed the Chicago river green.

So, when did St. Patrick’s Day become associated with beer? Because the holiday occurs during Lent, pubs in Ireland were forced by law to remain closed on March 17 until the 1970s. Imbibing alcohol on St. Patrick’s Day was frowned upon until Irish-Americans followed marketing from beer-makers to encourage revelers to quench their powerful thirsts with beer. And thus the traditions of public drunkenness, fistfights, and regurgitation in parking lots became part of the traditions of St. Patrick’s Day.

The first St. Patrick’s Day parade was held in Boston in 1737 and parades take place every year in major cities in Ireland, the United States, and in cities around the world wherever beer is available and a good excuse is needed to drink it.

Since then, St. Patrick’s Day has been celebrated all over the world with parades, parties, a proper Guinness and a hearty meal. Beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig, or in other words, Happy St. Patrick’s Day!