Though the meaning has been somewhat lost over the centuries, St. Patrick’s Day has been a religious holiday for over one thousand years. What else don’t you know about this popular spring event?
We’re on a Break
St. Patrick’s Day is actually celebrated to remember the life of a real man named Patrick, later canonized by the Catholic church. Each year the celebration is held on March 17, and it’s often met with great fanfare. This has been the norm for the day since its inception.
The St. Patrick’s Day holiday actually occurs in the middle of Lent, a Catholic period of restraint. Because the holiday is a feast day, and cause for celebration, the restrictions of Lent are lifted for the day. Eating meat is allowed. Traditionally, Irish families would attend church on the morning of St. Patrick’s Day before enjoying a meal of bacon and cabbage. It’s sort of a fun way to circumvent the rules of Lent, which requires you to sacrifice. Because the rules are suspended for one day, it’s greeted by many as an excuse to really indulge. It’s an odd way to celebrate a man who, by all accounts, followed the rules of the Church.
Patrick, patron saint of Ireland, was both in the 5th century — though not in Ireland. He was brought to the country as a slave while still a teenager, and later escaped. Eventually, Patrick went back to Ireland voluntarily to spread the word of God among the people. People have been observing his holiday since the 10th century to celebrate his life.
If you’re watching a St. Patrick’s Day parade this year, you’re part of a proud tradition. But did you know that those parades were once used to shift the tide of public opinion and change politics for ever? Today it’s all about green rivers (and rivers of green beer), but once upon a time the St. Patrick’s Day parade was used to change the United States.
The first St. Patrick’s Day parade dates back to 1762 in New York City, when Irish soldiers marched through the city to show their own national pride. For decades the parades continued, despite growing public sentiment in the US that was distinctly anti-Irish. Many Catholic Irish immigrants came to the States in 1845 during the Great Potato Famine, and they infuriated the largely Protestant population of the time.
Instead of allowing themselves to be shunned or pushed to the side, the Irish started to organize themselves. They took part in the St. Patrick’s Day parade, and they became known as “the green machine,” an important group to politicians who wanted their votes. They used to parade to put themselves on the radar politically, and they’re still there.
Today, the green-clad leprechaun is interlinked with St. Patrick’s Day, but he’s also a modern addition to the holiday. The traditional Irish leprechaun is a mischievous fellow who uses a lot of trickery. It wasn’t until Disney’s 1959 film “Darby O’Gill & the Little People” that the leprechaun became a green-clad, funny little man with a buckled hat on his head. Now the image is indelibly linked to St. Patrick’s Day. Drinking beer is a distinctly modern tradition of the holiday. Until the 1970s, Ireland’s laws mandated that pubs be closed on this important religious day.
Snake are traditionally part of the holiday, though they rarely feature into modern celebrations. The snake is a symbol for St. Patrick, because legend tells that he banished all snakes from Ireland. There are no snakes in the country…but scientists say there never were. The snake symbolism probably refers to Patrick’s missionary efforts in the country; the banishing of snakes represents the banishing of old religious beliefs.