“Why We Celebrate” looks at holidays, occasions, and traditions from all over the world, and explains their origins, the meaning behind them, and the reasons we observe them. St. Patrick’s Day has a long and fascinating history that dates back 1,500 years. Grab a pint and some corned beef, and be sure to wear green.
When the calendar says it’s March 17, you know you’re supposed to wear green, and you may know the day has something to do with the Irish. But how much do you really know about St. Patrick’s Day?
We take a deep dive into the late-winter holiday, including how it started, a few surprising facts, and some fun ways you can celebrate with family and friends.
What is St. Patrick’s Day?
St. Patrick’s Day marks the anniversary of the death of the patron saint of Ireland. Although its roots as a religious holiday trace back more than 1,500 years, St. Patrick’s Day has evolved into a secular celebration of all things Irish.
The story of St. Patrick is intertwined with myths and legends. Born in the late fourth century in Roman Britain, Patrick was kidnapped at the age of 16 by Irish pirates and taken to Ireland as a slave. Although he eventually escaped and returned home, Patrick’s deep admiration for the Irish people motivated him to return to Ireland years later as a Christian missionary. By the time of his death around the year 461 AD, Patrick had established schools, monasteries, and churches in the country.
Many legends have become associated with Patrick’s time in Ireland throughout the centuries. Two of the most enduring ones are that he used the shamrock, which grows freely across the Irish countryside, to teach the Holy Trinity, and that he drove snakes out of Ireland.
However, fact and fiction about this patron saint have become muddied over the years. “For a saint that is so central to Irish identity, I was surprised how little my students, and people more generally, knew about the historical Patrick,” says Roy Flechner, associate professor at University College Dublin and author of Saint Patrick Retold: The Legend and History of Ireland’s Patron Saint. “In fact, even the legends about Patrick are not as well known as they used to be.”
Flechner describes Patrick as “unique not only for his deeds but for the fact that he is the only person of his generation who left us anything in writing.” Patrick’s family was part of the Romano-British aristocracy, and Flechner points out that Patrick acted as a bridge for introducing aspects of Roman culture into Ireland.
6 questions about St. Patrick’s Day
Some of the traditions associated with St. Patrick’s Day are rooted in both fact and fiction. Let’s take a look.
1. Why is St. Patrick’s Day on March 17?
Historians do not know the exact dates of Patrick’s birth and death. March 17 is the date the Catholic Church established in the early Middle Ages as the saint’s Feast Day.
2. Why is green associated with St. Patrick’s Day?
Green is the color associated with Ireland’s verdant landscape. Ireland is even nicknamed The Emerald Isle. The color green also is linked with Irish political history.
3. Why do we pinch people who don’t wear green on March 17?
This custom is connected with the legend that wearing green makes you invisible to the mischievous Irish fairies, the leprechauns. When you pinch someone who isn’t wearing green, it’s a reminder that the leprechauns can sneak up to surprise them at any time.
4. Why is the shamrock associated with St. Patrick’s Day?
According to legend, Patrick used the three-leaf clover to explain the Christian concept of the Holy Trinity. The shamrock later became a symbol of Irish nationalism.
5. Why do we eat corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day?
Early Irish Americans are behind many of the modern traditions associated with St. Patrick’s Day. Corned beef was a less expensive substitute for beef or pork, and cabbage was cheaper than potatoes as a side dish for the holiday meal.
6. When did St. Patrick’s Day parades and special events start?
American cities with large populations of Irish immigrants began the festive celebrations in the 18th century. In addition to serving as an expression of pride in Irish roots, the parades often were signs of political power.
The two largest parades in the United States take place in Boston and New York. The processions in those cities date back to 1737 and 1762, respectively. One of the most colorful celebrations happens in Chicago, where the Chicago River is filled with green vegetable dye to mark the holiday.
5 ways to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day
Attending a parade or visiting your favorite pub to enjoy a green beverage are only two of the ways to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. Here are five ideas for family activities and gifts for your favorite leprechaun.
1. Cook a special meal
Share a traditional Irish-inspired meal with friends and family. Popular foods to make include corned beef and cabbage, shepherd’s pie, braised greens, potato and leek soup, and Irish soda bread.
2. Blend up a green shake or smoothie
A visit to the “golden arches” is not the only way to enjoy a green milkshake for St. Patrick’s Day. You can make your own at home with mint ice cream and some festive toppings. Some of these green drink recipes are even good for you.
3. Enjoy themed treats
Don’t let the celebration end when you get to dessert. This St Patrick’s Good Luck Pot is filled with yummy buttercream frosted shamrock cut-out cookies and foil-wrapped milk chocolate gold coins. It’s a gift that’s as good as, well, you know.
4. Wear green
Show your Irish spirit — and keep those naughty leprechauns at bay — by wearing something green on St. Patrick’s Day. And don’t forget the wee ones in the family. We love this personalized baby bodysuit and this cute hoodie for toddlers.
5. Delight someone special
Here are three gifts we know will bring a sparkle to anyone’s eyes this St. Patrick’s Day.
You’re sure to have the luck of the Irish with you when you share this sweet gift. It features nine Oreo cookies dipped in sweet confection and decorated with shamrocks and green drizzles.
Your loved one will feel lucky indeed when they see this adorable shamrock-sporting bear and the festive milk chocolates he brings with him.
This gift box of goodies won’t last long! It features five different popcorn flavors, including cookies & crème, white cheddar, and caramel.