St. Patrick’s Day:

From Saints to Stereotypes

March 17 is a day where you wear green to probably drink too much green beer. Yes, Saint Patrick’s Day in the United States has really become just another day to eat, drink, and be merry. However, I think it’s safe to say a lot of the people celebrating don’t even know why they’re celebrating or who Saint Patrick even was. So, before you head out to your favorite bar in that green top hat, take a moment to learn a little bit about the blessed day.

Who Was Saint Patrick?

There are a lot of legends surrounding the Patron Saint of Ireland, for whom the holiday was named, which makes it difficult to know what’s true and what’s myth. But here’s what we do know about this historical figure:

  • Saint Patrick was born in Britain sometime during the fourth century.
  • He was taken prisoner by Irish Raiders and was held captive in Ireland for six years before escaping and making his way back to Britain.
  • Having always used his religion as solace while in captivity, an angel spoke to him in a dream, which lead him to return to Ireland as a missionary.
  • The primary religion in Ireland at the time was paganism, so Saint Patrick embraced this by combining the existing rituals with his Christian teachings.
  • During this time, he created the Irish Cross, which combined the sun with the traditional Christian Cross.
  • It is believed he died on March 17, which is why we celebrate the holiday on that day.
  • And, no, he did not lead the snakes out of Ireland, no matter how nice that would be.

Although he remains uncanonized by the Catholic church, many Christians recognized Saint Patrick for what he did for the faith.

Origins of the Holiday

Saint Patrick’s Day began as a religious holiday in the 1600s. It was established as a feast day by the church as a way to honor their patron saint. Since the celebrations occur during Lent (a time where Catholics and certain denominations of Christianity abstain from certain vices), it provides a break for those observing the tradition.

The holiday followed Irish immigrants to the Colonies in the 18th century, where the religious holiday soon grew secular. The holiday started growing in popularity and the first Saint Patrick’s Day parade was held in Boston in 1737. The day would continue to grow in popularity well into the 1800s as more and more Irish came to the states during the Great Potato Famine [Wikipedia Link].

Now, over in Ireland, Saint Patrick’s Day didn’t become a recognized holiday until 1903, and even then it didn’t look like the celebration we know now. It was a day where you would go to church to enjoy a feast, in fact, drinking was banned on the day until the 1970s.

Green Beer
Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

Now, that little history lesson doesn’t explain two popular traditions associated with the holiday: green and drinking. Where did these aspects of the holiday come from? Well, it’s all still rooted in Irish history.

Wearing green serves as a way to remember the Irish Rebellion of 1798. The Irish soldiers wore green uniforms as the fought for independence from the red-uniformed British. Until the revolution, the color associated with Saint Patrick and the holiday was Blue. Since then, everyone has recognized green as the official color of Saint Patrick’s Day.

As for the drinking, a lot of it comes down to marketing and stereotypes. As said earlier, Saint Patrick’s Day gave those observing lent a day off, meaning they could eat and drink as much as they want and it wouldn’t count against them. But that did not include consuming alcohol because of that whole ban until the 70s. So where did this tradition come from?

Well, sometime in the 1980s, Budweiser created a marketing campaign that showed Saint Paddy’s Day and drinking in excess went hand-in-hand because of the harsh stereotype surrounding Irish and alcohol consumption. Much like a certain other holiday that’s intended to celebrate culture.

Saint Patrick’s Day Today

Today, Saint Patrick’s Day is celebrated around the world by Irish and non-Irish alike. It’s a day of celebration, linking Irish back to the homeland and introducing outsiders into the culture. And it’s the one day of the year the Chicago river is allowed to flow in its natural color (just kidding).

Because of the popularity of the holiday, Ireland has worked to make their traditionally solemn day more of a tourist attraction. Now, Dublin is home to a multi-day festival used to lure in guests from all over the world and boost the local economy.  

What are your plans today? Do you ever participate in any of the celebrations around the world?

Featured Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash


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