St. Patrick’s Day: More Than Just Snakes and Shamrocks

What better way to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day than by remembering the holiday’s namesake? In the fourth century, Patrick was born to a wealthy family in Britain, and although his father was a deacon, it’s thought that had more to do with local tax incentives than any strongly held religious beliefs of the family. When Patrick was 16, his family’s household was raided by the Irish and he was enslaved. Doing the lonely work of a shepherd in Ireland, he filled his hours with religious thought and became a devout Christian.

After more than six years of enslavement, he had a (he believed, God-sent) dream which told him to leave Ireland. He escaped shortly after, and returned to Britain, where he undertook religious training for more than a decade. He then returned to Ireland to spread the word of Christianity.

In Ireland, Patrick brilliantly incorporated pagan symbolism into his teachings. Bonfires were used to celebrate Easter, the three-leaved shamrock was used to explain the Holy Trinity, and he created the Celtic cross when he coupled the Christian cross with the sun, a powerful Irish icon. While he wasn’t the first to introduce Christianity to Ireland, he was key to the religion’s success there. March 17th is the anniversary of his death, and, in Ireland, it’s been observed as a holiday for over a thousand years. While he may not have driven out any actual snakes (there were none to begin with), he did, according to Christian belief, drive out the “snakes of evil” by introducing the word of God.

Today’s St. Patrick’s Day celebrations—largely an excuse to drink beer and pinch people not wearing green—are more lighthearted than those of the past. While there were St. Patty’s Day parades in the U.S. from the late 1700s on, the influx of Irish Catholic immigrants in 1845 lent a political tone to the day.

The Irish Catholics were much discriminated against (even by Irish Protestant Americans), and the St. Patrick’s Day parades served to give them an idea of their power in numbers. The population politically organized, and their “green machine” voting bloc was courted by politicians. The first president to attend the New York parade? Truman, in 1948, more than a hundred years after the Irish Catholics first entered the U.S. It’s a strange history, for those of us who now consider the St. Patrick’s Day parade as American as apple pie. Or should that be corned beef and cabbage?

by Mica Habard