Saint Patrick's Day: The History, Myths, and Traditions Explained

Published: Mar. 17, 2017 at 6:03 AM EDT
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Friday, March 17, 2017

(WRDW/WAGT) – Today is Saint Patrick’s Day, the day to honor the patron saint of Ireland. But you may be wondering why we celebrate it, how and when the day was first celebrated, and if those old myths about St. Patrick and his day are true. Let’s break it down:

Who is Saint Patrick?

Patrick was not Irish, contrary to popular belief. He was also not initially religious, despite being born into a wealthy devout Christian family. He was born around 385 A.D., and while his exact birthplace is unknown, it is widely believed he was born in England.

When he was 16 years old, he was captured by Irish pirates and taken to Ireland, where he spent six years as a slave and herdsman. Legend has it that Patrick survived through his faith, and received a message from an angel to flee back home and become a missionary. He escaped and walked 200 miles to the coast where he hopped aboard a ship back home.

He spent the next few years becoming ordained and later traveled back to Ireland with hopes of converting the Irish people to Christianity, traveling the country for around 40 years. Legend says Patrick died in Saul on March 17, 461 and is believed to be buried in Down Cathedral in Downpatrick, Northern Ireland.

A longstanding myth is St. Patrick drove the snakes of Ireland into the sea, but it is simply not true. Scientists reportedly believe snakes couldn’t reach Ireland because of the Ice Age, which is why the island does not have the reptiles.

So did the first celebrations of Saint Patrick happen in Ireland?

Yes, but they were not as commercialized or even celebrated as it is done today in America. For many years, Ireland only celebrated St. Patrick’s Day as a minor religious holiday, which included a feast and religious ceremony to commemorate the patron saint.

St. Patrick’s Day as we know it today is largely believed to be an American invention created by Irish Americans. The first Irish Parades were held in New York City and Boston in the 1700s. It became an official public holiday in Ireland in 1903, and their first St. Patrick’s Day Parade happened in 1931. The first St. Patrick’s Day festival in Ireland happened in 1996.

Have the Irish always celebrated St. Patrick’s Day with drinking?

While many Americans celebrate the day by drinking at pubs and bars across the country, the Irish couldn’t drink at pubs and bars from 1903 until the 1970s, due to a provision closing them on St. Patrick’s Day after drinking reportedly got out of hand. In 1927, the Irish government banned the selling of alcohol on St. Patrick’s Day, although it remained legal in Northern Ireland. The ban was not repealed until 1961.

Why do we wear green? Is the pinching myth true?

Many people wear something green on St. Patrick’s Day, known by many as celebrating their Irish heritage. However, the first color associated with St. Patrick and St. Patrick’s Day was blue. In fact, it was long rumored that wearing green was considered unlucky. In Ireland, the presidential standard is still blue. In the 1700s, Ireland changed the color to green.

In Ireland, people wear a small bunch of Shamrocks rather than wear green clothes. The Shamrocks are blessed at church ceremonies by local priests or bishops, and this is known as the “Blessing of the Shamrock.”

The tradition of wearing something green (including green hats, shamrock sunglasses, and gaudy green t-shirts) is an American tradition, and have very little connection to Ireland.

So why do you get pinched if you aren’t wearing green? Legend has it that this was also an American tradition. The story goes that if you wore green you would be invisible to leprechauns, which would pinch anyone not wearing green. Reportedly, people started pinching those without green on them as a reminder about the leprechauns.

So what is the significance of Shamrocks?

Most popular belief is that St. Patrick used a Shamrock with three leaves to explain the Christian Holy Trinity. However, many critics suggest there was no evidence he ever did that. In fact, the use of Shamrocks didn’t become a tradition until about the 17th century.

Legend says that people wore shamrocks on their coats for good luck and ended the day by “drowning the shamrock,” placing it in a glass of whiskey before drinking.

So why do we eat corned beef and cabbage and drink Guinness?

Well, turns out the corned beef and cabbage meal, though long identified as a St. Patrick’s Day meal, is more of an American tradition than Irish. Legend says that Irish Americans in the 19th century were mostly poor, they could only afford corned beef; and Cabbage was also cheap.

Guinness is the drink most people go for on St. Patrick’s Day, and the reason is because it is an Irish stout. However, the popularity of this drink on this day is also an American tradition. Guinness reportedly says Americans drink about 3 million pints of Guinness on St. Patrick’s Day, and industry analysts believe 13 million pints will be consumed worldwide.

And what about Leprechauns?

Those are from Irish folklore. Legend has it that they were shoemakers, and if you find and capture one of these creatures, you can give him his freedom in return for three granted wishes.

So celebrate the legacy of Saint Patrick on this day, no matter how you celebrate there’s no wrong way.