Happy St. Patrick’s Day everyone! Tis the day to celebrate all things Irish, drink green beer, and wear something green or risk get pinched. But, why on earth do we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and just who was this saint who Christians and non-Christians alike know of? Here are some fun and interesting facts about St. Patrick:
Patrick wasn’t Irish! He was born in Britain to wealthy parents who were Roman citizens living in either Scotland or Wales. He was a humble, pious and gentle man. When he was 16, young Patrick was kidnapped by Irish raiders who took him to Ireland and sold him as a slave. He then spent many years herding sheep but turning to God in prayer. When he was 22 he escaped and made his way back to England where he spent 12 years in a monastery. Legend has it that he had a dream in which the people of Ireland were calling him back. The dream is said to have been the voice of God encouraging him to spread Christianity across the Emerald Isle and convert the pagans. Patrick left England for Ireland and began preaching the Gospel, building churches, and converting many, including Kings and entire families and villages. He continued to do so for 40 years, living in poverty and enduring suffering until he died on March 17, 461.
St. Patrick’s Day, therefore and surprisingly, is celebrated on the day he died, not on the day he was born.
Patrick used the shamrock as a way to teach the trinity during his travels. The simple green plant grows abundantly in Ireland so he cleverly used it to explain that the trinity – the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – although three separate entities are really just one, much like the three parts of the one plant that is a shamrock. His idea was so convincing that even pagan rulers quickly converted to Christianity.
The shamrock is a popular Irish symbol but it is not the official symbol of Ireland. Since medieval times the harp has represented Ireland and when it became an independent country in 1921, it adopted the harp as its national symbol.
There are more Irish people in the U.S. than there are in Ireland! Well, sort of. There are an estimated 34 million Americans who claim Irish ancestry, but the population of Ireland is only 4.2 million.
St. Patrick’s Day originated as a somewhat political holiday rather than a religious one. In the mid-19th century, Irish immigrants faced discrimination comparable to what African Americans encountered, sometimes even worse. As a showing of solidarity, American Irish immigrants organized themselves and commemorated St. Patrick’s Day with annual parades and festivities to demonstrate their political and social might. Today some of the day’s largest celebrations can be found in Boston and New York City with parades the standard and green beer overflowing.
Irish law from 1903-1970 considered St. Patrick’s Day a religious holiday, requiring all pubs be closed for the day. This means drinking was not a part of original celebrations! The law was reclassified as a national holiday in 1970, opening the doors of drinking establishments and the tradition of green beer. However, in the diocese of Ireland, it is still considered a holy day of obligation, meaning Catholics are obligated to attend mass and receive the sacrament on that day…perhaps before visiting the local pub!
St. Patrick, along with St. Nicholas and St. Valentine, is one of Christianity’s most widely known figures, but he is also recognized in the secular world. He is not only revered by Catholics though. He is honored with a feast day in the Episcopal Church and is also venerated by the Orthodox Church.
In order to make potential Irish converts comfortable with his teachings, Patrick incorporated many traditional rituals into his lessons. For example, fire was sacred to the Irish, so Patrick superimposed a sun onto a Christian cross. Today this cross, called a Celtic cross, is one of Christianity’s most popular.
St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City is the seat of the archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York and is a parish church for many. The Fifth Avenue Neo-Gothic icon is also one of Manhattan’s most popular tourist attractions, on par with the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building.
While on his evangelizing journeys, Patrick is said to have carried a wooden stick with him and would thrust it into the ground wherever he was speaking. In one place, Aspatria, his message took so long to be accepted that the stick supposedly took root and grew into a living tree.
St. Patrick has never been formally canonized by a pope. During his years on earth, canonizations were done on the diocesan or regional level but churches everywhere consider him a saint in heaven and he is in the List of Saints.
St. Patrick is said to be buried on Down Cathedra in the County of Down in Ireland.