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St. Patrick’s Day: History and Traditions

March 17th, or Saint Patrick’s Day, is an annual holiday where people around the world gather together to party and hang out with friends. We all know the standard traditions, like wearing green, participating in bar crawls, and having day parties, but where did these traditions begin? How is the holiday celebrated differently in its native country? What is the holiday’s history? That’s what I’m here to answer today.

My family is incredibly Irish. Seriously. My entire mom’s side is either Scottish or Irish. So for a long time, we have practiced very traditional aspects of the holiday, including specific foods to eat, parades to watch and prayers to read. It’s a yearly holiday that allows us to fully embrace our culture and show our family history to those around us. Therefore, I wanted to share the true history of the holiday and some traditions you can take part of yourself this St. Paddy’s.

The history

St. Patrick’s Day is held annually on March 17, the day that the man who gave the holiday its namesake died. Saint Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland and its national apostle. He was born in Britain near the end of the fourth century. At 16, he was taken prisoner by a group of Irish raiders who invaded his family home and taken back to Ireland as a slave. During his captivity, he turned to religion to fight against his fear and became a devout Christian. After six years of captivity, he escaped by walking nearly 200 miles to the Irish coast. From there, Patrick fled to Britain, planning to never return.

However, he said that he experienced a revelation telling him to go back to Ireland as a missionary. He then began religious training which he stayed in for 15 years. After being ordained as a priest, he was sent to Ireland to both minister Christians already living in Ireland and convert the Irish. To do so, he began mixing Irish culture into his religious teachings. He would participate in bonfires for the Easter holiday as the Irish honored their gods with fire. He also created the Celtic cross by combining the sun onto the Christian cross to honor the powerful Irish symbol. He would continue his teachings for the rest of his life. After his death, the Irish deemed his death date as a day to honor the man and the influence he had on the country. 

Where do these traditions come from?

The yearly traditions that Americans participate in are based on many Irish traditions, but they have changed over the years. The first of which is the color green being associated with the holiday in today’s day and age, but green was not always the color used in Ireland. The knights of the Order of St. Patrick actually wore a color called “St. Patrick’s blue” and that shade was the color associated with the holiday until the 18th century. It then changed to green after supporters of Irish independence used that color to represent the cause.

Another tradition that wasn’t standard is the idea of parties on the holiday. The day’s origins as a religious holiday were originally only celebrated in Ireland and featured a quiet morning at church or a prayer at home, followed by a large family feast. The holiday falls during Lent, but St. Patrick’s Day overruled Lent’s rules and allowed for the Irish to eat meat during their family meal. This tradition changed in the 1700s when Irish immigrants living in the U.S. began organizing parades as a show of their pride. As more people adopted the large spectacles, the day continued to evolve until it became what it is today.

How can you celebrate?

Aside from the standard American traditions we all know and love, here are traditional Irish traditions you can participate in:

wear shamrocks

While the wearing of green is expected on St. Paddy’s, those of Irish origin tend to wear shamrock clumps or images of shamrocks specifically. This stems from the 17th and 18th centuries when the Christian religion was suppressed due to the British invasion and Christian schools were forced underground. These “hedge schools” were frequently held outside and teachers had to use what resources were available to them, often including nature. Teachers used shamrocks to demonstrate the Holy Trinity to their students. Now, the symbol is worn to show Irish pride.

wear snakes

Wearing the symbol of a snake is in reference to the old folk story that St. Patrick banished snakes from Ireland. While the myth actually refers to the banishment of paganism, many people still wear snakes in reference to the story or to honor the pagan ancestors.

attend a parade

The parades held nationwide on March 17 started, as previously stated, as a way to show Irish pride as an immigrant in America, so attending a parade and showing support allows you to honor old Irish culture.

Drink traditional irish beer

For those of you who are 21+, picking up a pint of Guinness can be a fun way to celebrate. Though the actual tradition used to be abstaining from alcohol, that rule has quickly changed in recent years. The traditional Irish beer is well drunk worldwide by both Irishmen and many others. While there are several other variations of traditional Irish beverages that are available in Ireland or online, grabbing a quick pint is typically the cheapest and easiest option.

Have a Traditional Irish Dinner

Corned beef and cabbage is an extremely traditional Irish meal. This was the meal that used to be enjoyed in the evening after church. Turn on some traditional Irish music in the background to really celebrate the day.

learn irish dances

Though difficult for some, learning or watching Irish dances can be a fun way to embrace the culture and celebrate the holiday. Many people in rural Ireland would sing and dance to traditional Irish music after dinner.

Learn the Irish Gaelic Language

Are you a big fan of learning new languages? I have recently been using Duolingo to teach myself the old Gaelic language. It’s a fun way to learn more about Irish culture and also keep your brain engaged!

St. Paddy’s is both a fun holiday and an important one for many people around the world who want to embrace their culture. I hope you all can learn to appreciate the holiday and the Irish culture as much as I have!

Emily Harless

Ball State '22

Senior Social Media Coordinator for Ball State University's Her Campus. Involved in Alpha Chi Omega sorority and multiple on-campus news organizations. Studying Telecommunications and Journalism with minors in Spanish and Criminal Justice. For as long as I could remember, beauty, fitness, and lifestyle content have been my niche. I have always loved watching YouTubers who fall into those categories, so much so that I recently started a channel of my own (Emily Harless). While I love making video content, writing has been a passion for me my whole life, hence my joining HerCampus. I hope you guys enjoy my articles/content and can take advice from them for your own personal life!!
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