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.
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
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.