The Origins of St. Patrick’s Day

St. Patrick’s Day is famous for two things: parades and binge-drinking.

Named after the patron saint of Ireland, March 17 is used as a day to party in quite a few nations around the world besides Ireland. These countries include Canada, New Zealand, Great Britain, Argentina, Australia and the United States.

Though a generally popular holiday, those who celebrate it seem to know little of its origins or, really, the point of it all.

When asked what he knew of the history of St. Patrick’s Day, Taillon Staudenmeier, a sophomore at Wilkes University, knew the basics of it.

“I know that Saint Patrick was credited with the removal of snakes on the island of Ireland. I also know that, on a more believable note, he used the three leaf clover as a way to teach the Holy Trinity.”

What Staudenmeier mentioned and what many forget is the purely Christian origin of this holiday. St. Patrick’s Day is a day for church-goers. The Lenten restrictions on drinking alcohol are lifted for this day, which is most likely why this holiday has been continuously celebrated since the 1600s, according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

But, as Dr. Philip Freeman of Luther College said in a 2009 National Geographic article, “The modern celebration of St. Patrick’s Day really has almost nothing to do with the real man.”

So who was St. Patrick?

Nearly all the world knows about this murky figure is from two hand-written documents. The most notable is called “The Confessions of Patrick,” which acts as an autobiography for the saint himself. The following information is taken directly from his words, along with various historians’ interpretation of it.

In the first place, Patrick was not from Ireland. Born in Roman-controlled Britain            around 387 A.D., he was a non-believer with a deacon father. At the age of sixteen, Patrick was captured by Irish pirates, taken to Ireland itself and turned into a slave. While being in captivity for a six-year span, he found God through prayer and reportedly began hearing voices.

These voices, he believed, were messages from God and the angels. He ran away and persuaded a ship captain to take him back to Britain. Once home, he continued his study of Christianity. A few years later, he had a stunning vision.

As Patrick himself writes, “I saw a man coming, as it were from Ireland. His name was Victoricus, and he carried many letters, and he gave me one of them. I read the heading: ‘The Voice of the Irish’. As I began the letter, I imagined in that moment that I heard the voice of those very people… and they cried out, as with one voice: ‘We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.’”

Patrick returned to Ireland as a Christian missionary following the vision. His mission was to convert the pagan population to Christianity. This was not an easy task. Many of the Irish thought he was insane and Patrick was beaten often for his beliefs, according to his memoir.

Patrick died in relative obscurity on, what historians believe, was March 27, 461 AD.

Over time the myth around Patrick grew to epic proportion. Nearly the entire Irish national identity is founded around this folklore.

But St. Patrick’s Day itself is a different story. What we celebrate today is more or less a bastardization of the Christian feast day.

A major inaccuracy is the use of the color green as symbolic of St. Patrick. St. Patrick’s color, and the color with which Ireland celebrates St. Patrick’s Day, is blue.

According to J.B. Bury, author of Ireland’s Saint: The Essential Biography of St. Patrick, the color green is widespread for four reasons.

“The first reason is that green is one of three colors in the Irish flag. The second reason is Ireland’s nickname, ‘The Emerald Isle.’ The third is the association of the color green with the season of spring, similar to the use of a rabbit for Easter. And the fourth and most obvious reason is that green is the color of the shamrock.”

The world will never know who St. Patrick really was. Now all historians can do is speculate over centuries-old texts to try and find new meanings in dead words. So, as another St. Patrick’s Day comes and goes, think about the history of what’s being celebrated blindly but consistently.

Maybe the luck of the Irish will lead you to answers.