Why Do We Celebrate St. Patrick’s Day?

By Jamie GreysonLast Updated Mar 17, 2021 12:30:01 PM ET
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St. Patrick’s Day Parade as seen through a shamrock-tinted lens on March 17,1955 in New York City. Credit: Ed Clarity/NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images

Whether you wear green and crack open a Guinness or not, there’s no avoiding St. Patrick’s Day revelry. Celebrated annually on March 17, the holiday commemorates the titular saint’s death, which occurred over 1,000 years ago during the 5th century. But our modern-day celebrations often seem like a far cry from the day’s origins. From dying rivers green to pinching one another for not donning the day’s traditional hue, these St. Patrick’s Day customs, and the day’s general evolution, have no doubt helped it endure. But, to celebrate, we’re taking a look back at the holiday’s fascinating origins.

Who Was Saint Patrick?

Known as the patron saint of Ireland, Patrick was born in Roman Britain. At the age of 16, he was kidnapped, enslaved, and brought to the Emerald Isle. While he did escape, Saint Patrick is credited with returning to Ireland and bringing Christianity with him around 432 AD, which is likely why he’s been made the country’s national apostle. Roughly 30 years later, Patrick died on March 17, but, from monasteries and churches to Christian schools, he clearly left an enduring legacy behind.

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Photo Courtesy: Jim Heimann Collection/Getty Images

As happens after one’s death, a number of legends cropped up around the saint. The most famous? Supposedly, he drove the snakes out of Ireland, chasing them into the sea after they attacked him during a 40-day fast. Did the Christian missionary really accomplish this feat? It’s unlikely, according to Nigel Monaghan, keeper of natural history at the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin. "At no time has there ever been any suggestion of snakes in Ireland," Monaghan told National Geographic. "[There was] nothing for St. Patrick to banish." Another (much more plausible) story notes that Saint Patrick used a shamrock to illustrate the Holy Trinity — hence the three-leafed clover’s connection to the holiday.

To celebrate Saint Patrick’s life, Ireland began commemorating him around the 9th or 10th century with religious services and feasts. Since March 17 falls during the Lent — a Christian season that prohibits the consumption of meat, among other things — revelers would attend church services in the morning and celebrate the saint in the afternoon. Best of all, they received special dispensation to eat Irish bacon, drink, and be merry.

Contrary to popular belief, the first St. Patrick’s Day parade was thrown in North America in 1601. And, no, it wasn’t held in Boston. In fact, the Irish vicar of what was then a Spanish colony — and what is now present-day St. Augustine, Florida — helmed the celebration. In 1737, Irish folks in Boston held what some considered to be the city’s first St. Patrick’s Day parade — though it was more of a walk up Tremont Street, really. And, in 1762, Irish soldiers stationed in New York City held their own march to observe St. Patrick’s Day. Now, parades are an integral part of the revelry, especially in the United States where millions of people flock to the over 100 parades held annually throughout the country.

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How Is St. Patrick’s Day Celebrated Today?

When the Great Potato Famine hit in the mid-1800s, nearly 1 million Irish people emigrated to the U.S. Many of these Irish immigrants faced discrimination based on the religion they practiced — largely Roman Catholicism — and their unfamiliar accents. While organizations, such as the New York Irish Aid society, tried to foster a sense of community and Irish patriotism on St. Patrick’s Day, revelers were portrayed poorly in the media, furthering the discrimination the displaced Irish community faced.

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Photo Courtesy: Ellis Island via FPG/Staff/Getty Images

But this all changed when Irish Americans recognized their own political power. St. Patrick’s Day parades, and other events that celebrated Irish heritage, became popular — and even drew the attention of political hopefuls looking to capture the Irish American vote. Nowadays, the pride has continued to swell, so much so that both people of Irish descent and those without any Irish heritage partake in the festivities. In the U.S., massive celebrations are held in major cities like Chicago, Boston, New York City, and Savannah.

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Outside of the States, Canada, Australia, and, of course, Ireland go all out, too. In fact, up until the 1970s, the day was a traditional religious holiday in Ireland. Irish laws had mandated pubs to close on March 17. But, in the 1990s, Ireland decided to use the holiday to drive tourism. Each year, the holiday attracts about one million people to the country — and, in particular, to Dublin, which is home to Guinness, Ireland’s famous stout.

Why Green? And Why Corned Beef?

So, why is green associated with the holiday? It seems like the obvious linkage is Ireland’s apt nickname, the Emerald Isle, which references the country’s lush greenery. But there’s more to it than that. For one, there’s the shamrock — a symbol of St. Patrick — and green is one of the colors that’s been consistently used in Ireland’s flags. Notably, green also represented the Irish Catholics who rebelled against Protestant England. Perhaps surprisingly, blue was the original color associated with the holiday up until the 17th century or so.

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People enjoy drinking Guinness outside Temple Bar pub on the opening day of the St. Patrick's Day Festival on Friday, March 15, 2019, in Dublin, Ireland. Credit: Artur Widak/NurPhoto/Getty Images

And, as you may know from St. Patrick’s Days past, there’s also a long-standing tradition of being pinched for not wearing green. This potentially irksome trend started in the U.S. "Some say [the color green] makes you invisible to leprechauns who will pinch you if they can see you," ABC News 10 reports. Our advice? Make sure you’re wearing something green on the day — or practice your dodging maneuvers until you’re a regular Spider-Man.

"Many St. Patrick's Day traditions originated in the U.S.," Mental Floss points out. "Like the compulsion to dye everything from our booze to our rivers green." And the traditional meal of corned beef and cabbage is no exception. In fact, corning is a way to preserve beef, and, while it dates back to the Middle Ages, the practice became popular amongst Irish immigrants living in New York City in the 1800s.

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"Looking for an alternative [to salt pork, or Irish bacon], many Irish immigrants turned to the Jewish butchers in their neighborhoods," Mental Floss reports. "There, they found kosher corned beef, which was not only cheaper than salt pork at the time, but had the same salty savoriness that made it the perfect substitution." Served up with cabbage, potatoes, carrots, and traditional Irish soda bread, this meal is a must-have every March. Often, revelers will pair their corned beef dinner with a Guinness stout. In fact, it was estimated that 13 million pints of Guinness were consumed worldwide on March 17, 2017. And, in the U.S. alone, folks spent over $6 billion celebrating St. Patrick’s Day in 2020.