The first St. Patrick’s Day parade was held far from Ireland, in New York City on 17 March 1762. The participants in the parade were not Catholics, who hold St. Patrick in great reverence, but were, in fact, Anglo-Irish or Protestant Irish immigrants. The wave of Catholic immigrants that would come to the US would occur later in the 19th century due to the Potato Famine. All Irish Christians tend to observe St. Patrick’s Day to celebrate the spread of Christianity in Ireland.
The stories surrounding St. Patrick are a curious mix of tall tales, legend and facts. He was likely captured by a band of raiding Celts when he was 16 and forced to labor in Ireland for about six years. He was then able to escape and return to England. His time as a slave made him lean heavily on his religion, resulting in visions of God’s wishes for him to convert the Irish people to Christianity.
After training as a priest in England, he returned to Ireland and began this conversion, which was largely successful. He was not the first Christian in Ireland, and part of his job was ministering to those Christians who already lived there. With his exceptional intelligence, he incorporated pagan ideals such as the worship of the Sun, into Christian concepts. He was canonized by the Catholic Church after his death, in what is now widely accepted as AD 493, although it was previously held that his death date was circa AD 460.
Since all saints have what is called a feast day, the Irish, and other Catholics would typically celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in his honor. Later, he became something of a national symbol to Ireland, because through him, the Irish established part of their national identity, which is their strong commitment to Christianity. Although parades came much later, St. Patrick’s Day has been observed for at least 1000 years. It is typically a day for attending mass, and obligations to fast during Lent, during which the holy day falls, are lifted for that one day. Traditional meats, like Irish bacon, were often served with cabbage and were the one time during Lent when meat could be consumed.
There’s a certain irony to the first St. Patrick’s Day parade, though St. Patrick was not Irish by birth. However, he brought Catholicism, not Protestantism, which didn’t exist yet, to Ireland. When large numbers of Catholic Irish immigrants flocked into the US, they were frequently unwelcome, especially by earlier Anglo-Irish immigrants. They were despised by many as illiterate, drunken, and needy. Celebrations in America often excluded the Irish Catholics during the Potato Famine years.
However, St. Patrick’s Day can also be said to be the inspiration for the Second Wave Irish immigrants to realize their political power in the US. By organizing marches around the day, their strength in numbers allowed them to ultimately become an important part of the political process. Political candidates soon had to appeal to them in order to get elected.
St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland was actually much more subdued than celebrations in the US, due to the fact that it was a religious holiday and therefore treated with reverence. Influence from the way the US, Canada, and Australia celebrated the holiday ultimately led to changes in Irish celebrations. Up until 1995, however, pubs were not open on St. Patrick’s Day. The characterization of March 17 as being a day for drinking is based on stereotypes of Irish immigrants as drunks, which was clearly not true of many Irish people.
The “wearing of the green” on St. Patrick’s Day is a nod to the shamrock. It is largely thought that St. Patrick used the Irish shamrock to illustrate the Holy Trinity to the Irish people. Green worn on the day can also reflect the green covered fields in Ireland, or the green section of the Irish flag, which is associated specifically with Southern, primarily Catholic, Ireland.
Today St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated in Australia, Canada, Ireland, and the US. Some other interesting world locations have also occasionally celebrated the holiday. Places like Russia, Singapore and Japan have also celebrated St. Patrick’s Day, and the Irish typically use these celebrations to boost tourism to Ireland.