A quick history of St. Patrick’s Day

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A stained glass window depicting St. Patrick

The day of the leprechaun is upon us. St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated March 17 with green, shamrock, and cabbage. But how did the holiday start, and who is it celebrating?


St. Patrick, or Maewyn Succat, is the patron saint of Ireland, meaning he was the protecting or guiding saint of a specific person or place. He was born in Roman Britain in the late 4th century, and kidnapped at the age of 16 to be taken to Ireland as a slave.Though he escaped after six years, he returned in 432 to try to convert the Irish to Christianity. He established schools, churches, and monasteries. 


St. Patrick wasn’t just a missionary, he had many legends written


It is said that he drove the snakes out of Ireland and into the sea after they attacked him atop a hill during a 40-day fast. 


He also supposedly used a shamrock to explain the holy trinity to the pagans of ireland.


A very common legend is one where he prayed for the provision of food for hungry sailors who were traveling by land. As the legend goes, a herd of swine appeared not long after.


St. Patrick himself claimed that he could raise the dead.


Legend after legend, this patron saint grew in popularity. Sadly, he passed March 17, 461, in Saul, where he had built his first church. He may have died, but the celebrations live on.


Traditionally, a feast containing corned beef and cabbage is served. In the middle ages, pork was more affordable than beef, and even then it was mostly reserved for the holidays. When Irish immigrants arrived in America, the opposite was true, beef was cheaper. Corned beef was similar to the salted pork which they were used to, which paired well with cabbage.


Immigrants to the U.S. were the first to change St. Patrick’s Day into a secular, or non-religious, holiday in favor of celebrating all things irish.


Boston held its first St. Patrick’s Day parade in 1737, followed by New York in 1762. Since 1962, Chicago has colored its river green in celebration, though blue was originally the color connected with the holiday. So why did it change to be green? 


Some say that you wear green to represent the rolling green hills of Ireland, earning it the nickname The Emerald Isle. The color was officially designated with the holiday some time in the 18th century, when the shamrock became the national symbol of Ireland.


Irish and otherwise all wear shamrock to celebrate the holiday. Lots of traditions that started elsewhere have made their way into irish households, though it’s mostly for the benefit of tourists.


What about the little man in green? How do leprechauns fit into everything?


Mischievous faeries from Irish folklore, Leprechauns are said to grant humans three wishes, if caught, in exchange for their freedom. Nobody really knows when they were introduced as symbols for the holiday, but the little man with the red beard has stuck through the ages.