The celebration of Saint Patrick’s Day embraces an ancient history of religious observance and Irish patriotism.
For over 1,000 years, the religious holiday of Saint Patrick’s Day has been celebrated annually on March 17, the anniversary of the patron saint’s death in 5th century Ireland. Though the Irish holiday is now marked by patriotic parades, pints at the pub, and all-green ensembles, the original celebration is rooted in Christian tradition and Celtic folklore.
Saint Patrick was a patron saint and the national apostle of Ireland who lived during the fifth century and is best known for introducing Christianity to the Emerald Isle. Legends about the honored saint suggest that he explained the Holy Trinity using the three leaves of an Irish clover, forever bestowing holy meaning onto the native Celtic shamrock. His death is believed to have occurred on March 17, 461, and in his honor, Saint Patrick’s Day is still celebrated on the anniversary of his passing each year. His legacy has endured for roughly 12 centuries, a remarkable testament to his lasting impact on Christianity and on Ireland as a nation.
The annual holiday is also influenced by ancient Celtic folklore and the longstanding myth of the leprechaun, a beloved legend which can be traced back as far as the 8th century. Fables about the mysterious, tiny men stem from Irish mythology and link the mischief-makers to household fairies. The word “leprechaun” comes from the Irish term “leath brogen,” meaning: shoemaker, suggesting that leprechauns were once thought to be tiny cobblers who collected gold to hide at the end of a rainbow. Over time, Irish leprechauns have heavily influenced popular culture, symbolizing Ireland as a whole and serving as the mascot of Notre Dame as well as the poster figure of Lucky Charms cereal, spreading rich Celtic culture around the world.
Today, the legend of the leprechaun is still widely loved, and the small town of Carlington, Ireland even enacts laws to protect the little creatures after several supposed sightings. Visitors can venture through guided tours of underground caves in Carlington said to be the stomping grounds of what are believed to be remaining populations of the mystical Irish figures.
Over roughly ten centuries, the celebration of Saint Patrick’s Day has evolved and changed as its influence has spanned across the globe throughout generations. Saint Patrick’s Day began as the Roman Catholic feast day of St. Patrick in the ninth or 10th century. The holiday also falls during the Christian season of Lent, but prohibitions were customarily postponed for the feast, allowing Irish families to enjoy traditional meals of Irish bacon and cabbage. The festivities of Saint Patrick’s Day eventually spread to the United States when the Irish Potato Famine prompted nearly one million Irish Catholics to flock to America to escape starvation. Though the holiday is now marked by drinking, eating, dancing, and typically rowdy festivities, the day was originally observed as a religious occasion until 1995, when the Irish government chose to reopen pubs for Saint Patrick’s Day to boost tourism and to highlight the timeless customs and festivities of Ireland.
After centuries of Irish emigration, the yearly commemoration of Saint Patrick is now celebrated in over 25 countries across the globe, from Ireland to the Caribbean and even in the International Space Station, making Saint Patrick’s Day the most widely observed national holiday in the world. With the annual celebration only a week away, we are reminded of the historic origins of the holiday as we prepare to reverently and properly celebrate Saint Patrick and the vibrant culture of Ireland.