Hand rocks, leprechauns, corned beef and cabbage, wearing green - part of a tradition that has been around for generations, St. Patrick's Day was originally a religious holiday in Ireland to commemorate their patron saint, Saint Patrick. Here in the US, it has grown into a rambunctious celebration of all things Irish.
Incidentally, some of the traditions and "all things Irish" that are celebrated didn't actually originate in Ireland, including Saint Patrick himself.
St. Patrick was not of Irish descent despite his association with the Emerald Isle. He was born in Britain in 386 A.D., but was kidnapped by pirates and taken to Ireland at the age of sixteen, where he was sold as a slave. While there, he worked in the fields and prayed for six years until he dreamed that God was guiding him to a vessel that would take him back. He escaped the country in 408 A.D., and in 432 A.D., he was ordained as a bishop and sent back to Ireland by the Pope to spread Christianity.
Patrick was consumed with the ambition to help diminish the suffering of the Irish people who were oppressed by servitude, ferocious tribal combat and paganism. To facilitate the transition to Christianity, he integrated pagan ceremonies into Christian worship services. Even when he was attacked and taken prisoner by Irish clans, he would answer with non-violence and propagate his Catholic faith peacefully, always treating non-Christians justly.
Rumors tell of St. Patrick's forty day fast on a hilltop, during which he was approached by snakes. He used his sermon and staff to lead them to the sea, where they all perished, thus explaining why there are no snakes in Ireland. In actuality, the climate of Ireland and its island status make it an unsuitable habitat for snakes, as evidenced by the fossil record. Consequently, scholars today see the snake story as a symbolic representation of the expulsion of paganism from Ireland.
The traditional St. Patrick's Day did not involve much fanfare. Parades, pubs, and parties were not a part of the Irish observation until the 1700s when Irish-Americans began displaying their culture. Only after the invention of the television did the Irish get to witness how the U.S. observed the day, leading to the lively festivities that Ireland now has.
The color green has become synonymous with St. Patrick's Day, yet the traditional hue associated with the Irish saint was blue. This is evidenced by the old drawings of St. Patrick, as well as by George III's creation of the Order of St. Patrick, whose official color was called "St. Patrick's Blue."
On St. Patrick's Day, shamrock shakes, leprechaun coats, and the Irish flag all feature a certain hue - green. This colour carries a political significance, being adopted as the colour of Irish nationalism in 1789 when the Irish revolted against the United Kingdom. It is also appropriate for Ireland, given its nickname of The Emerald Isle.
The tradition of consuming corned beef does not originate from Ireland. Despite the fact that Irish people in the mid-1600s produced some of the most desired corned beef, they themselves were unable to eat it due to England's oppressive laws. As a result, they would purchase pork or bacon when they had the money. Two centuries later, Irish immigrants living in America had more money, so they bought kosher beef from their Jewish neighbors. What is today known as Irish corned beef is actually a combination of Jewish corned beef, potatoes, and cabbage, which symbolizes the American immigration "melting pot".
In Ireland today, you'd most likely be presented with lamb or beef stew at a St. Patrick's Day feast. Nonetheless, the American tradition of corned beef has, just like our St. Paddy's Day revelry, slowly infiltrated Ireland's celebrations as well. It's interesting to explore the background of St. Patrick's Day and discover that many of the things we normally associate with old Irish traditions are neither particularly old (relative to Saint Patrick himself) nor purely Irish.
Despite this, these customs are still worth commemorating.Irish immigrants have a unique history in the United States, for they were some of the first to arrive. In the end, who doesn't admire a dyed green river or a parade with shamrocks and leprechauns? Have an excellent St. Patrick's Day, and may you have a joyous one! As the Irish language would say, "Beannachtaí na Féile Padraig ort!"