A Pot of Gold(en) Traditions: A Look at St. Patrick’s Day

Hunting for covered chocolate candies, marching in Irish Fest parades, and cooking up corned beef in aprons adorned with the logo “Kiss Me, I’m Irish!” are all common ways we celebrate St. Patrick's Day.


In 2018, approximately 32 million Americans claim Irish descent and 149 million people celebrate the holiday every year. However, many of us do not really know the history behind these fun traditions. I will be taking a little deeper look into who exactly St. Patrick is, the origins of the shamrock and delicious corned beef and cabbage, and adding on a more intricate look at New York City’s infamous Saint Patrick’s Day parade. 


1. Who even is Saint Patrick anyway? 

There is certainly a crazy story behind how Saint Patrick (just known as Patrick then) came to be well-known and recognized as Ireland’s patron saint. When he was a young man, way back in the 5th century A.D, Patrick was kidnapped by Irish raiders who were attacking his family’s British estate. He was held captive in Ireland. He spent six years there where he relied on his Christianity for help. When he finally escaped back home, a revelation from a higher being told him to return to Ireland as a missionary and to spread Christianity and its practices. He soon incorporated Irish culture into Christian lessons and traveled the country, converting the populations, baptizing thousands of people, and ordaining priests. He is now considered the father of bringing Christianity over to Ireland. 


2. Why is the shamrock clover so important? 

First off, the name comes from the Irish “seamróg” which means, “little clover.” And isn’t that just the cutest? Anyway, to explain more about why this little clover is so significant, Saint Patrick brought the clover to the Pagan Irish to explain the Holy Trinity in hopes of converting them to Christianity. In depictions early as 1675, St. Patrick is seen holding a shamrock, which linked the symbol with the Saint. Later the symbol was recognized at the feast of Saint Patrick on March 17 in which superstitious people bore or wore the clover to bring them good luck. Many Irish people started to associate the lucky shamrock with their nationality, and in 1800, when Ireland became part of the United Kingdom, it was incorporated into the royal coat of arms along with the English rose and Scottish thistle. Since the early history of Ireland, they have continued to use the shamrock as a symbol of luck and fortune, especially on Saint Patrick's Day. 


3. Why are we eating corned beef and cabbage?

Actually, this is not an authentic Irish meal–when waves of Irish immigrants came to America at the turn of the 19th century, they brought their own traditions but started to Americanize them. The authentic Irish dinner tradition was pork and potatoes since it was readily available in Ireland. However, in America they soon found beef and cabbage to be cheaper alternatives, since the Irish, especially in New York, were among the many immigrants who worked low-paid jobs and faced discrimination along with Jewish and Italian people. They found that mixing together beef and cabbage in a pot seasoned with spices was the easiest and tastiest way to make a hearty meal. Thanks to early Irish settlers over the years, this tradition has been spread all over America and is now often associated with Saint Patrick’s Day. 


4. How did the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New York City originate? 

The first celebration of the Irish’s homeland saint came as early as 1737 in New York when a group of Irish immigrants gathered to recognize their beloved Saint Patrick. Later on in the early 19th century (1820-1860), as waves of Catholic Irish immigrants arrived on East American shores, they encountered heavy discrimination and prejudice against their religion. Fighting against this, Irish immigrants started parades and celebrations to show their pride in their cultural heritage, which has continued for years until the present day. The New York City parade is deemed the oldest and largest Saint Patrick’s Day parade in America. Today this parade travels 1.5 miles up Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. There are 150,000 Americans marching in this parade, and among them are politicians, bands, children, bagpipers, and more who take part. Since 1850, this parade has been led by the 69th Infantry Regiment who started off as a group of Irish immigrants protecting against discriminatory attackers. In 2002, there were 300,000 marchers, which was the biggest participation in this parade’s history. 


These are only a few traditions of Saint Patrick's Day, and there are many more ways that we celebrate this holiday in both America and Ireland. 


However, not many of us know the background behind why we celebrate this holiday or why we really do the things we do on March 17. In reading about a bit of the history and culture, we can start to understand the significance this holiday has on Irish Americans and people who celebrate their cultural background.