St. Patrick’s Day is a cultural and religious holiday held annually on March 17. Named after the patron saint of Ireland, Saint Patrick, the day celebrates Irish heritage with food, parades, drinks, Irish lore, and an assortment of green-colored things—green beer, anyone?
Today the holiday is celebrated around the world, with much of the modern traditions inspired by Irish expatriots in the United States.
Who was Saint Patrick?
Maewyn Succat wasn’t particularly religious growing up—or even Irish, for that matter—so it’s a bit surprising that he became patron saint of Ireland.
Born in Britain around A.D. 390, Maewyn grew up in a well-to-do Christian family, complete with slaves and property. At 16, however, Maewyn was kidnapped and whisked away to Ireland where he himself became a slave and tended sheep for six or seven years; accounts differ. It was then that Maewyn became deeply religious.
Eventually, legend has it, Maewyn began to hear voices, one of which told him to escape back to Britain. He managed to gain passage on a ship, but once he reunited with his family, the voice told him to return to Ireland.
Before returning, he was ordained as a priest and changed his name to Patricius, or Patrick, inspired by the Latin root “patr-” for “father.”
At the time, most of Ireland was pagan and progress was hard-won by the missionary—he was often beaten and imprisoned by Irish royalty and pagan chiefs. After his death, he was largely forgotten. But then, slowly, the legend around Patrick grew until he was honored as the patron saint of Ireland.
St. Patrick’s Day, the American way
St. Patrick’s Day started as a minor religious holiday in 1631. The church declared it a feast day; pubs closed and observers went to church.
But the first St. Patrick’s Day parade was even earlier, and in America, according to the Washington Post. Ancient Spanish documents were discovered that showed the first recorded parade in honor of St. Patrick was in St. Augustine, Florida, in 1601. Although it was a Spanish settlement, St. Patrick was regarded as the patron saint of corn in the settlement. Since those early days, the parade tradition has spread throughout the U.S. and abroad, including Ireland.
Edge of the Cliff
People relax by Ashleam Bay on Ireland’s Achill Island in a photo from a 1940 National Geographic. In the distance, a low wall keeps cattle and sheep from falling off the cliffs.
Similarly, the food most associated with the holiday—corned beef with cabbage and potatoes—also started in the United States.
During the Irish potato famine from 1845-52, nearly one million Irish emigrated to the United States. Discriminated against and poor, Irish-Americans began eating corned beef from neighboring Jewish butchers and delis. The corned beef, simmered with cabbage, turnips, or potatoes, was inexpensive and became a staple. Over time, this Irish-American tradition became closely associated with St. Patrick’s Day itself, even though people in Ireland rarely ate beef.
As for the St. Patrick Day drink of choice, Guinness originated in Ireland and their flagship brew, Guinness Stout, is still brewed in their famous St. James’s Gate Brewery in Dublin. St. Patrick’s Day revelers consumed 13 million pints of Guinness on the holiday in 2017.
The color green
On St. Patrick’s Day, cities across the world turn iconic monuments green: the Sydney Opera House, the Pyramids at Giza, and the Eiffel Tower are all lit with green lights. The Chicago River is dyed bright green. In the U.S., people who don’t wear the color green on St. Patrick’s Day are pinched.
Green is the color of St. Patrick’s Day, but why?
According to some scholars, the color green only became associated with Ireland and St. Patrick’s Day during the Irish Rebellion in 1798. Before then, Ireland was known for the color blue since it featured prominently in the royal court and on ancient Irish flags.
During the rebellion against Britain, however, Irish soldiers chose to wear green—the color that most contrasted the red British uniforms—and sang, “The Wearing of the Green.” This firmly established the link between Ireland and the color green.