The Legend of St. Patrick’s Day

By Stacee Harger (text) and Beverly Cranmer (craft design)
Better Homes & Gardens Holiday Crafts, Spring/Summer 1996

Wear green on St. Patrick’s Day, or you’ll get a pinch! Most of us recall this tradition from our childhood. Every March 17, schoolchildren carefully pick outfits that include something green to avoid the painful pinches of classmates. As we grow older, the holiday signifies a time to drink green beer or eat mulligan stew. St. Patrick’s Day—a day honoring the patron saint of Ireland—has become a favorite fete in America, yet few know the historical significance behind the holiday.

Details of St. Patrick’s life were not recorded for two centuries after his death, so much about him is legend. The son of an English magistrate, he was born in Britain during the late fourth century. At the age of 16, he was carried off by pagan Irish raiders and sold into slavery in Ireland. Time alone on a mountainside tending his master’s sheep awakened his spirituality, and God became the focus of his life. After seven years in captivity, he had a vision directing him to the seashore, where he would find a ship to take him to freedom. Patrick followed the path revealed in his dream and escaped.

Upon returning to his homeland and family, he was haunted by memories of Ireland, Though born British, Patrick considered himself Irish for it was in Ireland that he discovered his faith in God. Again he had a vision, this time compelling him to return to Ireland to preach the Gospel.

As a missionary in Ireland, Patrick suffered many trials, even imprisonment by the Druids. However, after winning favor with local kings, conflict with the Druids lessened, and he converted many peasants to Christianity. For 28 years, Patrick traveled across the countryside, spreading the word of God. His followers, overcome with grief at his passing from old age in the year 460, embraced him as their patron saint.

In the centuries following his death, St. Patrick became a legend credited with driving the snakes out of Ireland, the blessing of the shamrock, and carrying the Gospel to the entire country. He was said to have spoken much about the Trinity—Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Some say he used trefoil leaves, or shamrocks, to explain the Trinity to followers as he ministered on the hillsides. After his death, a sprig of the three-leaf shamrock became a symbol of the beloved saint. It and its color—green—are now commonly associated with St. Patrick’s Day.

Families living in Ireland today celebrate St. Patrick’s Day as their ancestors did by attending a holiday Mass, visiting friends and relatives, then gathering for an evening of singing, dancing, and drinking toasts to St. Patrick.

Celebrations in Ireland are accompanied by much less fanfare than those in the United States. There is a parade in Dublin, but it is much smaller than those in New York City and Chicago.

In fact, the first St. Patrick’s Day parade took place not in Ireland but in New York City. During the American Revolution, the British Army marched 400 of its Irish soldiers up Broadway in a parade fashion, accompanied by fife and drum. At the end of their march, the Irish were greeted by British officers who served them a festive St. Patrick’s Day banquet.

In the eyes of the Irish soldiers, the banquet was given as a bribe to win favor for the King’s cause. This scheme, however, did no good. The Irish detested British rule over their homeland and resented being forced to serve in the British Army. Not long after the parade and banquet, hundreds of freedom-loving Irish soldier deserted the army and joined the colonists’ fight for independence.

The first purely secular St. Patrick’s Day celebration was held in Boston in 1737 by the Irish Charitable Society. The Friendly Sons of St. Patrick began celebrating the holiday in 1784, and by the late 1800s, people all across the United States celebrated being Irish on March 17. Today, there are more people of Irish descent living in the United States than in Ireland itself.

Fifteen centuries after his death, St. Patrick’s life and accomplishments are still being lauded and celebrated by Irish throughout the world. The religious significance of the holiday has faded, and the day has become more festive, and a time to proclaim unity among the Irish.


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