On March 17th of the past 1,000 years, people have gathered together to get drunk in honor of a saint. Yes, Saint Patrick’s Day is the most widely celebrated saint’s day in the history of the world, and one of the oldest annual celebrations. The party began in Ireland during the ninth century, but soon spread wherever Irishmen traveled as they chose this day in March to celebrate their homeland. Today, you’ll find copious celebration in the U.S, Canada, England, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, South Korea and Japan. But the thing is, many people have no idea what they’re celebrating.
Saint Patrick was born into a wealthy British family in the fourth century, but he was kidnapped at the age of 16 and brought to Ireland as a slave. He escaped after dreaming a vision of God, returned to Britain and entered the seminary, returning to Ireland a couple of decades later as a bishop to bring Christianity to the still-pagan Irish. He did so for over 30 years before dying on March 17, 461 - which is why his feast day is held on that date.
Although he did not win an exemplary number of converts, he was always seen as the father of Irish Christianity. The celebration of his feast day began on the anniversary of his death sometime in the ninth century, and hasn't changed very dramatically since. While early celebrations were more about the Irish people, the holiday has evolved over the years to be more of a general celebration of Irish culture - but a surprising number of St. Patrick’s Day customs have endured.
Shamrocks are absolutely everywhere on Saint Patrick’s Day, both the three- and four-leafed versions. While the four-leafed clover has long been considered a lucky charm, it’s the three-leaf variety that is the true symbol of Saint Patrick. While spreading the Christian gospel in Ireland, Saint Patrick used the ordinary three-leaf clover to explain the Holy Trinity to the Irish People. That’s not to say that a four-leaf clover is useless - finding one on Saint Patrick’s Day is said to confer double the usual amount of good luck.
The Wearing of the Green
People originally associated the color blue with Saint Patrick, but the shamrock association grew so strong over the years that people ended up covered in green (the color of the shamrock) on Saint Patrick’s Day. By the 17th century, green was the color du jour on March 17th.
In modern times, the color green has become pervasive on St. Patrick’s Day - sports teams wear special uniforms in honor of the day, cities dye rivers and fountains green, and Missouri University of Science and Technology literally paints the town green - workers use mops to paint 12 city blocks green before the St. Patrick’s Day parade.
Speaking of parades, there are plenty, wherever you find Irish diaspora. But, the smallest is in Dripsey, Cork - the route is 100 yards long, from the village’s one pub to the village’s other pub. Hooray for booze!
Most saints’ days are celebrations, but St. Patrick’s Day is apt to get a bit more out of control than say, the feast of Mary Magdalene. It’s not because the Irish make great whiskey and stout - it’s because the holiday falls during Lent, when most good Catholics have given up booze or meat or other delicious things as penance. Normally, this would make for a rather subdued party, but the church decided to make the day a 24-hour reprieve from Lent, allowing everyone to indulge to their heart’s content. No wonder people start drinking at breakfast and continue through the night - no more until after Easter.
Kiss Me, I’m Irish
St. Patrick’s Day isn't complete without a green T-shirt or button that invites kisses, whether the wearer is actually of Irish descent or not. Originally, the kissing was reserved for the Blarney Stone - a piece of the battlement of Blarney Castle, blessed when a king saved a woman from drowning. Kissing it is said to give the gift of eloquence, but not everyone can just pop on over to Ireland every March. Instead, Jolly revelers believe that kissing someone with Irish blood is the next best thing. Hence the T-shirts.
The current attitude toward the holiday is this: "Everyone’s Irish on Saint Patrick’s Day!" So break out your best green suit, steal a kiss and raise a pint of stout to the man who brought the church to Ireland. And maybe attend mass, you know, if you have time.