Whether you are Irish or not, you've likely participated in one form or another of celebrating on St. Patrick's Day. The wearing o' the green on March 17th has become an American ritual, along with other various Irish themed activities that make St. Patrick's Day one of our most favorite springtime holidays. Have you ever wondered, however, where all these unusual Irish traditions came from? Why do we wear green on St. Patrick's Day? Who is St. Patrick anyway? Where did the lucky leprechaun come from?
To get to the actual roots of St. Patrick's Day, you have to go very far back into history; in fact, you have to go all the way back to the 5th century. The man who we would later come to know as St. Patrick wasn't even named Patrick at all; his name was actually Maewyn Succat. In fact, to further confuse things, Maewyn wasn't even Irish! Maewyn Succat was born in Roman Britain and although very little is known about his early life, it has been documented that at age 16, Maewyn was kidnapped by a group of Irish marauders and taken off to Ireland where he would be sold into slavery. Maewyn lived as a slave to his master, working as a herdsman, looking after his master's animals in the fields. During his time in captivity, Maewyn wrote that he needed to turn to his faith in God over and over in order to survive his plight and he found himself praying many times to get through the day.
After about six years of being a slave and doing very hard labor, Maewyn was able to find a way to escape his captivity. Maewyn suddenly had his freedom, but he still had to find the long way back to his home. The journey to the nearest port was about 200 miles; a very long journey on foot and undoubtedly Maewyn had more than a few adventures while on his way. Eventually Maewyn was able to complete the trip back to his homeland. When first kidnapped, Maewyn had been just sixteen but he was now in his early twenties. While Maewyn had been away from home, he had grown up to be a man.
An interesting thing happened to Maewyn after he'd been home for just a short period of time. Maewyn claimed that he had a vision, a vision in which he was being called back to the land of Ireland in order to teach the pagan Irish people the Christian religion. At this time Maewyn changed his name to Patrick (the saint part came later) and he did indeed go back to Ireland where he was purported to baptize thousands of the Irish people into Christianity and helped to set up many Christian communities throughout Ireland.
Irish history and folklore are completely ingrained with many stories about St. Patrick. Which of these historic Irish tales have any truth to them? Or are most of them just fanciful stories? No one can say with any certainty, which, if any, of the many Irish traditions have been made up, exaggerated or embellished, but there is no doubt that throughout the centuries, great regard was held for St. Patrick and his mission amongst the Irish people.
St. Patrick and Snakes
One of the most infamous legends that surrounds St. Patrick is the story in which St. Patrick himself banished all snakes from Ireland and pushed them into the sea, all by his very command. The truth is, however, that there is no actual evidence that there ever were any snakes in Ireland to banish. No snakes or any other closely linked reptiles were considered to be indigenous creatures to the Emerald Isle or surrounding areas; thus it appears this tale of St. Patrick and the snakes may be largely based on creative folklore or perhaps the tales were more symbolic in nature; meaning that snakes were representative of the pagan ways or rituals that were now being replaced with St. Patrick's new religious teachings.
Another infamous teaching of St. Patrick that has been passed on throughout the ages involves the use of the 3-leaved Shamrock, which St. Patrick purportedly used to teach the principle of the Holy Trinity. Each leaf of the Shamrock represented one part of the Trinity, being The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The Irish Shamrock easily demonstrated and symbolized the Christian teaching of 3 persons being one God.
St. Patrick's Day Feast
Over time, the date of St. Patrick's death (March 17) was marked and celebrated in Ireland as a day of celebrating and great feasting. The restrictions of Lent were temporarily lifted during the festivities so that this day to honor St. Patrick also became a day of hearty eating, drinking, dancing and the celebration also included plenty of general merriment. Since the 9th century, the people of Ireland have continued to observe March the 17th as a Catholic feast day remembering the life, teachings and service of their beloved St. Patrick.
Irish Immigrants came to America
Prior to the middle of the 19th century, most of the Irish immigrants that came to America were a part of the Protestant middle class. The Great Potato famine of Ireland that occurred in 1845, however, changed everything. A huge number of poor and uneducated Irish Catholic citizens came to America to avoid imminent starvation and to seek employment in order to survive. Unfortunately, work was not easy to find for many of these immigrants and even the most abject jobs were hard for these folks to come by. Sadly, many unfortunate stereotypes of Irish Americans stem from this time period of great hardship and strife. Irish citizens were sometimes portrayed in the newspapers as drunken or even at times, violent.
Irish American's brought many customs from their homeland with them to America. Celebrating St. Patrick's Day was obviously a tradition that was very near and dear to them and marking this day with eating, drinking and making merry was an important festivity to the Irish people. The first known St. Patrick's Day parade was held in America in 1762. Irish soldiers that were serving in the English military organized themselves and paraded through the streets of New York City. The event was a way to lift the soldier's spirits, while at the same time rekindling their love of country as well as reconnecting with their beloved Irish roots. St. Patrick's Day parades continue to be held throughout America to this day, the biggest St. Paddy's Day parade being held in New York City with over 150,000 participants, with the parade route itself taking over 5 hours to complete. Annual St. Patrick's Day parades emulate the great pride and strength of the Irish American people who had to overcome much stereotyping and racial discrimination in order to finally gain acceptance in the early days of America.
As history progressed, a rapid reversal occurred and it didn't take long for the large and growing numbers of Irish Americans to be recognized as a potentially very influential political power. Political hopefuls quickly realized that these large number of Irish American citizens (eventually known as "The Green Machine") could be organized into a voting block that could easily impact and even swing a vote. St. Patrick's Day parades were considered an important event to attend by political hopefuls. In 1948, President Truman attended a St. Patrick's Day celebration, an event that illustrates how Irish American's had now come full circle and could finally be free from all racial prejudices.
Irish American's eventually spread out and moved into other major cities and localities throughout America, bringing their Irish traditions along with them. Chicago's annual dyeing of the Chicago River began as part of a St. Patrick's Day celebration that was used in conjunction with a pollution control mechanism needed in the city. Back in 1962, 100 pounds of green vegetable dye was put into the Chicago River as an effort to trace illegal sewage discharges. Of course, pollution workers thought it was also a very clever idea to put the dye into the river as part of the St. Patrick's Day celebration that went along with this lively Irish holiday. Once the 100 pounds of dye was placed into the river, the water turned bright green and stayed that way for an entire week. Today, the dyeing of the river tradition continues, although far less (40 pounds) dye is used these days and the river only remains green for a few hours.
The Wearing O' the Green
The tradition of wearing green clothing is one of the most mainstream parts of St. Patrick's Day celebrating. If you go back far enough into history, however, the original color associated with St. Patrick's Day was actually considered to be blue. As history marched on, however, green overtook blue in popularity for St. Patrick's Day, largely because of Ireland being known as "The Emerald Isle". Other reasons for this color change were likely due to the color of green being in the Irish flag as well as the Irish association with The Shamrock. To this day, St. Patrick's Day is considered to be the day of days to don one's best green attire and get into a celebratory mood. Rumor has it that wearing green will make you completely invisible to leprechauns as well, which ultimately may help you in your quest to find one, should you so desire. Forget to wear your green on St. Patrick's Day? Tradition dictates that if you aren't wearing green, you are asking to get pinched. Pinching folks who forget to wear green actually stems from legend that states that leprechauns would sneak up and pinch most anyone that they could actually see. If you had green on you were supposedly invisible to the leprechaun and would thus avoid this pinching altogether.
The Legend of the Leprechaun
The leprechaun, long held as one of the most favorite parts of authentic Irish folklore, has a rich and somewhat colorful history. The leprechaun is actually considered to be an Irish fairy with many tales and stories about him that have been passed on for many generations. The leprechaun has very distinct features as well as characteristics. For one thing, a leprechaun is always male as there is no such thing as a female leprechaun. Leprechauns are also known to be rather cantankerous and surly beings, whose livelihood has long been that of a shoemaker. Leprechauns are known to hoard their money in pots of gold, which traditionally have been carefully hidden away by the leprechaun at the end of various rainbows. Many a greedy human has been motivated to find the gold belonging to the legendary leprechaun but because the leprechaun himself is so crafty, it's almost impossible to succeed at finding his carefully hidden pot of gold. With few exceptions, most humans throughout tale and folklore who have tried to find the leprechauns riches have been abjectly foiled, as the cagey and notoriously tricky leprechaun outwits them. Leprechauns are extremely small and diminutive as most traditional fairies would be, with the average size of him being barely 2 ft. tall. Tradition states that once you spot a leprechaun, he will not be able to escape from you unless you take your eyes off of him, so once you've got him in your sights, don't let go! The ever elusive Leprechaun is very hard to find, and even harder to capture, but that doesn't seem to stop many people as well as schoolchildren from attempting to devise various capturing methods to try and ensnare the very lucky leprechaun for themselves. At barely 2 ft. tall and wearing all green, (which makes for great camouflage by the way) finding a leprechaun is next to impossible. Even still, if you do happen to spot one, it is considered to be very good luck indeed.
In today's modern world, St. Patrick's Day is a holiday enjoyed by all backgrounds as well as ethnicities of people. Whether you are Irish or not, it's fun for the masses to participate in the many fun Irish-based traditions that are associated with this exciting and history-rich holiday. From eating traditional Irish dishes such as Corned Beef and Cabbage to heading down to the local pub for a refreshing (and possibly green) pint of Guinness, there are many ways for everyone to get into the St. Patrick's Day fun. Dressing up in an Irish-themed costume is a perfect way to really get into the festivities, especially if you are headed out to a St. Patrick's Day parade or other celebration being held in your community. Perhaps what they say is true. "Today we all are Irish". And to that my friends, we can all raise a glass and say a very enthusiastic, "Aye!" Happy St. Patrick's Day from your friends at Halloween Express!
Need a little help putting together that perfect leprechaun look? Check out our how to video on creating the perfect leprechaun look that is sure to be the hit of your St. Patrick's Day festivities!