Do people really care, or remember for that matter, that St. Patrick’s Day is really a religious holiday? Or that the historical man, St. Patrick, wasn’t Irish at all? That St. Patrick’s Day was bigger in other places, like the United States, long before it became a tourism marketing opportunity for Ireland? As with most world-wide cultural phenomenon, the history and original significance are long lost for most of us.
St. Patrick would at least win for name recognition in the Who’s Who of Saints. I confess I’m not much into saints, but a few have become such cultural icons, we might as well know a wee bit about them, no?
The first surprising fact is the Patrick of saint fame isn’t Irish at all! He was born in Britain to an aristocratic Christian family around 390 A.D. At age 16 he was kidnapped by Irish raiders and sent to Ireland as a slave where he tended sheep. At some point during his seven year captivity, he had a religious conversion to Christianity. He revealed that God spoke to him about escaping his captivity. Upon his return to Britain, he joined the church, Roman Catholic in the day, and studied to become a priest.
Around 432 , he heard God’s voice again, telling him to go back to Ireland and Christianize the polytheistic people of Ireland. Legend has it that Patrick used the prevalent shamrock, or three-leaf clover, to illustrate the Trinity (God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit) to the Irish people. He spent the rest of his life in Ireland, dying on March 17, 461.
As with most who become saints, a certain mythology develops around them over time. Gradually, Patrick became known as the patron saint of Ireland. As the Irish found themselves dispersed throughout Europe, and eventually other parts of the globe, festivities around St. Patrick’s Day gradually emerged.
In the United States, St. Patrick’s Day celebrations were observed before the Revolutionary War! The colonies became the place of choice to send criminals and church dissidents (aka Protestants) so early St. Patrick’s Day celebrations weren’t religious in nature at all. They were more opportunities for Irish solidarity. Even George Washington allowed a St. Patrick’s holiday for his Continental Army since so many of his soldiers were Irish. Plus it was an act of solidarity for Ireland who was also fighting for independence from Britain.
The thing I find so fascinating is the widespread acceptance and celebration by so many around the world who don’t have any Irish or religious connection to St. Patrick at all! I’d put this day in the same category as Valentine’s Day. It’s origins are around a religious figure, but modern-day observances are quite secular and tacitly honor a group of people, Irish in this case.
And there’s nothing wrong with that. We do live in a global community. Every culture is interesting and has elements we all can relate to. Our lives become enriched, and we can have some fun, by joining in the celebration.
Here’s to the wearing of the green and raising a mug of Guinness…or some other green beverage!