Millions of people with Irish ancestry around the world will once again celebrate the feast day of St. Patrick, one of the most widely-recognized patron saints of Ireland on March 17. St. Patrick’s Day, which is his feast day as well as the anniversary of his death (461 CE), is observed by many religions. It is recognized by the Catholic Church, the Church of Ireland and the Anglican Communion, the Lutheran Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church.
It will be another day of merry-making, with plenty of Irish whiskey and Irish beer, wearing orange or green, shamrocks worn everywhere and anywhere, parades, attending céilithe and feasting on traditional Irish food for the day, cabbage and corned beef, or for the traditionalists, cabbage and Irish bacon. The day usually falls within the Lenten Season and this is one special day when the restrictions on drinking and eating meat are lifted.
Who was St. Patrick?
Contrary to popular belief, St. Patrick was not Irish. He was British. He was born to a wealthy British family around 385 CE (385 AD) and spent most of his young life there. His father was a Christian deacon but it is unknown if he came from a religious family, because there were many who believed that his father took on the task as a tax incentive.
Patrick was 16 years old when he was kidnapped by Irish raiders. For six years he was made to work as a slave, tending to sheep alone outdoors. With only sheep for company, he turned to his religion for solace.
According to his memoirs, he later had a dream where a voice, which he believed to be from God, told him to leave Ireland. He walked 200 miles from where he was held captive (believed to be Country Mayo) to the coast. Upon returning to Britain he had another dream where an angel told him to be a missionary and return to Ireland. His religious training took 15 years. After ordination he was sent to Ireland. His dual mission was to convert the Irish and be the minister to the Christians living in Ireland.
Methods of teaching Christianity
As he was already familiar with the language and the ways of the Irish, St. Patrick used traditional rituals to teach the Irish about Christianity. Bonfires were used to celebrate Easter, simulating the Irish tradition of using fire to honor their gods. He superimposed the sun on a crucifix, later to be called the “Celtic Cross” because the Celts venerated the sun.
St. Patrick also used the shamrock, which the Celts called “seamroy” to illustrate the Holy Trinity. In ancient Ireland, the shamrock was sacred. It was the symbol of spring rebirth and later became the symbol of Irish nationalism and pride, particularly when they were conquered by England.
St. Patrick, according to Irish folklore banished all the snakes from the country by standing on a hilltop and waving his wooden staff. In reality, since ancient times, there had been no snakes in Ireland. This is more an allegory to the removal of pagan beliefs and Christianity’s triumph in the island nation. Ireland became wholly Christianized 200 years after the arrival of St. Patrick. The hill where they said he stood to banish the snakes is called “Croagh Patrick.”
Merriment and activities
The Irish love music and festivals that is why it is no wonder that the activities surrounding the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day or “Lá Fhéile Pádraig” in Irish are centered on these activities, although some of things associated with the feast day are modern day creations, outside of Ireland. The day is celebrated in the U.S., Canada, Russia, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Argentina, U.K., Monserrat, South Korea and Switzerland. Most of the fun activities to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day originated in the United States and were later introduced to Ireland.
• The leprechauns in Celtic legends were cranky little people who mended the shoes of fairies. They were then very minor figures in Celtic folklore. Walt Disney created a whole new image of a leprechaun in the film, “Darby O’Gill & the Little People” in 1959, which became a very recognizable symbol in the U.S. as well as in Ireland.
• Irish soldiers who fought with the British in the U.S. Revolutionary War held the first parade in New York City during St. Patrick’s Day in the 18th century. This became a tradition that was followed by Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia among other states.
• Wearing the color green became a symbol of commitment to Ireland in the 19th century.
• Dyeing a part of the Chicago River green was started in 1962 by Steve Bailey, parade organizer.
• Guinness, Irish stout beer is very popular worldwide. During St. Patrick’s Day, its consumption doubles, from the regular daily consumption of 5.5 million pints worldwide, something that pub owners in the United States prepare for.
Irish limericks, sayings and blessing are abundant and for St. Patrick’s Day, here’s one for everyone:
"May you always have walls for the winds,
A roof for the rain, tea beside the fire,
Laughter to cheer you, those you love near you,
And all your heart might desire!"