Celebrating St. Patrick’s day
March 15, 2010
St. Patrick’s Day is widely celebrated in the United States by Irish and non-Irish alike, regardless of ethnic background. We wear green-colored clothing, treat ourselves to our version of Irish foods, and enjoy other activities designed for celebrating St. Patrick’s Day, but are these really authentic Irish customs?
Historians tell us that much of the folklore surrounding St. Patrick and his life is not substantiated. The tale that a sermon given by St. Patrick from a hilltop drove snakes from Ireland, maybe a metaphor for his conversion of pagans to Christianity. Snakes were never native to Ireland.
One explanation behind wishing someone the “Luck of the Irish” may come from the legend of the “Little People” of the land, known as the leprechauns. Finding or catching a leprechaun (who would then give you gold) was a lucky event that could only happen in Ireland.
I remember stories about leprechauns and coloring pictures of them during my childhood. And although, only those of Irish ancestry who are caught not wearing green are supposed to be pinched, as non-Irish children we also enjoyed adopting that custom.
The familiar icon of the day, the shamrock, comes from a more plausible Irish tale saying that Saint Patrick used the three-leafed clover to represent the Holy Trinity – three separate elements of the same entity. It could have been a helpful visual analogy during his ministry or invented by teachers at a later date.
Even the foods we associate with the holiday were not native Irish dishes. We look forward to corned beef with cabbage, and anticipate grocery stores featuring special sales for the occasion, but actually, that well-known combination is an American adaptation. Simple basic foods such as potatoes, oatmeal and fish reminding us of the stark conditions of Irish immigrants are more authentic.
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Therefore, promoting the idea that certain familiar customs came from Ireland is Irish blarney. Some of the most popular traditions have been developed in the United States perhaps to add a bit of fun to the festivities.
Irish-American immigrants brought St. Patrick’s Day to the United States. The first public celebration took place in Boston, Mass., in 1737, and the world’s first parade is attributed to New York in 1762. The early day celebrations in Ireland were predominantly religious.
The fact remains that Saint Patrick’s Day would not exist if it weren’t for the Patron Saint of Ireland. What little is known about the life and work of Saint Patrick comes from his own writings in Latin, now accepted as authentic.
Some sources say Saint Patrick was born around 387 in Scotland (others say Great Britain) ruled by Rome. His father belonged to a Roman family of high rank and held an official Roman office.
When he was 16 he was kidnapped by Irish marauders and sold as a slave to an Irish chieftan where he tended his master’s flocks. In his loneliness, he became a devout Christian. After six years he escaped, and made his way home.
His six years of captivity helped prepare him for his future mission. He learned the Celtic language and became familiar with the details of Druidism from whose bondage he was destined to liberate the Irish people.
St. Patrick’s heart was set on devoting himself to the service of God, and he went to Gaul where he studied more than 12 years under St. Germain, bishop of Auxerre. During training he became aware that his calling was to convert pagans to Christianity.
He was eventually appointed as the second bishop to Ireland, where he was quite successful at winning converts. He set up monasteries, churches and schools which helped in conversion of the Irish to Christianity. His mission to Ireland lasted 30 years, when he retired.
Although the place and time of his death is uncertain, tradition says at Saul, near Downpatrick, Ireland on March 17, the day now celebrated as the national festival. (The year varies from 460 to 493 A.D. depending on the source.)
No matter how we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day on March 17 let us remember that we are commemorating one of Christianity’s most recognizable figures, but the real facts of his life still remain something of a mystery. Happy St. Patrick’s Day!