On March 17, partygoers across the world don their emerald ensembles and raise a Guinness to good old St. Patrick. But behind that glow-in-the-dark shamrock pin your friend insists on wearing every year is a rich story filled with religious conviction, Irish pride, and (believe it or not) a British guy.
Who was St. Patrick?
While St. Patrick is indeed the patron saint of Ireland, he was actually born in Great Britain at the end of the fourth century. At age 16, he was kidnapped by a group of Irish raiders attacking his family’s estate and brought to Ireland. He spent the next six years in captivity on the Emerald Isle, hidden away and working as a shepherd. Alone and afraid, he turned to religion for comfort and soon became a devout Christian. Shortly after escaping back to Britain, he dreamt that an angel urged him to return to Ireland as a missionary. Already familiar with Irish language and culture, Patrick began to teach Christianity not by insisting the Irish abandon their current way of life, but by incorporating it into native Irish beliefs and rituals. He superimposed a sun, a powerful Irish symbol, onto the Christian cross (now known as the Celtic Cross), marked the celebration of Easter with a bonfire (the Irish commonly honored their gods with fire at the time), and introduced the shamrock as a symbol of the Holy Trinity for Irish Catholics (now a common Irish symbol).
Why the color green?
The traditional color associated with St. Patrick was actually blue; in fact, there’s even a shade of blue named “St. Patrick Blue.” Green, on the other hand, was always synonymous with Ireland thanks to its plethora of rolling fields (hence the name “Emerald Isle”). As the shamrock became intertwined with Irish Catholics, people began tucking shamrocks in their lapels for the holiday as a proud marker of their heritage, and the color stuck.
Why is the holiday so popular in America?
While the Irish are always ready for a celebration, St. Patrick’s Day was considered a minor religious holiday in Ireland until recently. So where does all the green-tinted fanfare come from?
With the Irish potato famine driving large groups of people to America and Canada, immigrants were eager to find a reason to come together and honor their heritage in a new place. Eighteenth-century Irish soldiers fighting with the British in the U.S. Revolutionary War were some of the first to march in St. Patrick’s Day parades. As the years went on, the celebration continued to grow, particularly in cities with flourishing Irish immigrant communities such as Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia. After all, with over 34 million U.S. residents boasting Irish ancestry (which is more than seven times the population of Ireland itself), St. Patrick’s Day has become a staple in many American cities.
So where should you celebrate this St. Patrick’s Day?
Dublin’s St. Patty’s day is the perfect choice for those who are more interested in the culture of the holiday over the party. Here, the St. Patrick’s festival is a weeklong celebration of all things Irish; after watching the parade, many locals will head to their favorite pub for a traditional meal and live music.
Even more famous than Chicago’s parade is its color display; each year, the city dyes a portion of the Chicago River green in Irish solidarity, a tradition started in 1962 after a city plumber noticed that the dye used to test the river for pollution turned his overalls bright green.
Leave it to Canada not to let a little rain or snow stand in the way of a celebration; Montreal’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade has run consecutively since 1824. After catching the procession, be sure to do-as-the-Irish-do and stop in a pub to share a pint with the locals.
New Zealand’s largest city gets to host the world’s first St. Patrick’s Day party every year thanks to its location. And with a heavy Irish emigration, New Zealand boasts proud Celtic heritage; in addition to a lively annual parade and music festival, the 1,076-foot-tall Sky Tower is lit with green lights.
With nearly a quarter of its residents claiming Irish ancestry, Boston is always ready for a St. Patty’s Day party. Thousands of marchers and revelers alike show up for the annual parade in Boston’s “Southie” district before hitting the bars.