Learn the history behind St. Patrick’s Day

A parade is held in Belfast, Ireland to celebrate St. Patrick's Day in 2018. (Courtesy of BBC News)A parade is held in Belfast, Ireland to celebrate St. Patrick's Day in 2018. (Courtesy of BBC News)

Arynn Williams, Correspondent

As March approaches, we are enjoying the last hurrah of the winter season. Right before spring begins, one last holiday can be celebrated: St. Patrick’s Day. Known for being perhaps the greenest day of the year, the holiday is celebrated in America primarily as an excuse to party, but what are the origins of St. Patrick’s Day?

When asked about St. Patrick’s Day, the average American might describe it as an Irish holiday. If asked if they know who St. Patrick was, they might say that he drove the snakes out of Ireland, though it’s unlikely they understand what that actually means. While the holiday is largely commercialized now, serving as a day to party, it does have significant cultural roots.

St. Patrick’s Day falls on the believed death date of the saint, who died sometime in the fifth century. Little is known for sure about the man; it is a fact that he wasn’t of Irish descent, but rather brought to Ireland, and that he later became a priest. He is largely credited for bringing Christianity to Ireland—or, “driving the snakes out of Ireland,” as the legend goes. During the time that St. Patrick lived, Ireland had a Celtic culture and its religion was led by the Druids, who are considered to be Pagan. As modern Ireland is considered a Catholic country, it’s obvious that St. Patrick had great success in his mission to convert the culture.

Why is the holiday celebrated, though? It mostly has to do with Lent. Lent lasts for roughly six weeks and March 17 always falls during it. Therefore, the holiday is a much-welcomed break from fasting for some observers. The first celebration of the holiday was in 1631 with a feast hosted by the church itself. Modern forms of celebration have evolved over the years—drinking and dressing head-to-toe in green wasn’t exactly the thing to do in the 17th century. The evolution of the holiday can be attributed largely to Irish diaspora.

Irish populations outside of Ireland grew in the 18th century and celebrating St. Patrick’s Day was a way to connect to their homeland. Unsurprisingly, the first known celebration of St. Patrick’s Day in the colonies was in Boston—roughly thirty years before any other American city decided to host celebrations and parades for the holiday. Aside from satisfying a yearning for their homeland across the ocean, these early celebrations served an important purpose: creating a community. St. Patrick’s Day allowed Irish-Americans to feel a sense of belonging and create close-knit communities that exist to this day.

These communities are not the only ones celebrating, of course. Now a widely-recognized holiday, St. Patrick’s Day is enjoyed just as much by non-Irish partygoers. In the last forty years, the day has turned into a public day of revelry. Little is left of the origins of the day; there is no feast, no rejoicing the changing of a country’s religion, and certainly little acknowledgement of the day’s namesake himself. The association of the shamrock to the origins is tenuous at best, and the connection of leprechauns and the color green created long afterwards. However, the day’s real purpose throughout its entire existence is to create camaraderie, and that hasn’t changed in the slightest. Regardless of the day’s origins, it can be agreed that everyone should go out and enjoy themselves as much as possible—even if it does fall on a Tuesday this year.

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