From elementary school onward I was aware of Saint Patrick’s Day. It was the day where we were all expected to wear green or else Leprechauns would pinch us – Leprechauns here referring to AJ Meyers or Mikie Potter, the two boys in my class who leaped for any opportunity to tease and bully. But those traditions began long before we grubby children were even conceived, and even the people like me who did grow up with St. Patrick’s Day probably don’t know exactly where these traditions came from.
Let’s start with the name:
Saint Patrick was the patron saint of Ireland, along with Saint Columba and Brigid of Kildare. But why has his name grown to overshadow these other two? The shortest and simplest answer is that Saint Patrick, who was supposedly born in Roman-controlled Britain, is credited with being a major force in converting the native Celts of Ireland to Catholicism. While Columba was born in Ireland, he was also more famously active in Scotland, and some scholars have suggested that Saint Brigid was not a real person, that she was instead a Christianization of the Celtic goddess of the same name.
The famous explanation of Saint Patrick’s accomplishments is that he “drove the snakes out of Ireland,” which sounds pretty impressive until you realize that Ireland does not have native snakes. Rather than this being evidence of Saint Patrick, it is more likely due to unfavourable climate for reptiles. That he “drove the snakes out” is likely an allegory for his work converting pagans who held druidic beliefs.
As to what the holiday means in Ireland, I would like to refer to the “Oxford Companion to Irish History” for a definition. I would like to. But there isn’t one.
There is a definition in the “The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America,” though. In Ireland, Saint Patrick’s Day is heavily associated with Catholic faith. Its March 17th date takes place in the middle of Lent and is treated as a “cheat day” for the faithful to drink to their Saint. As it turns out, we in North America celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day much differently than people in Ireland do. This is largely due to the Irish Potato Famine between 1845 and 1852. Due to lack of food, a large number of impoverished families immigrated to the East Coast of the United States. The Irish diaspora were adrift in a place not their own and in the face of losing their culture celebrated the importance of this shared tradition. This was the point at which Saint Patrick’s Day became a secular day of celebration. Images with religious connotations adapted. Shamrocks, which were ostensibly used by Saint Patrick to represent the holy trinity, came to be a catch-all shorthand for “Irish.” Pinching someone for not wearing the colour green is also an American invention. Evidently, those who want to find a way around America’s cultural melting pot might be inclined to commercialize St. Patrick’s Dayand throw a kegger (although coming from a predominantly white country probably didn’t hurt much either).