Saint Patrick's Day has been celebrated on March 17th for over a 1000 years! How it is celebrated has evolved over time with increased American influence. In addition to the parades around the world, the day has become known for wearing green, excessive drinking, overcrowded pubs, and worst of all...green beer! Ever wonder how what was once a solemn religious holiday (pubs were actually closed in Ireland) became the unofficial drinking day where everyone is Irish for a day?
Saint Patrick's Day commemorates the missionary's death in Ireland during the 5th century. Credited with bringing Christianity to Ireland, Patrick was a bishop who was never formally canonised. Legend recounts how Saint Patrick used the Irish shamrock to explain the Holy Trinity when converting the former pagan society. In Ireland, the day's celebrations until the 1960's consisted of church in the morning and a feast in the afternoon. Pubs were not open. The day was considered boring by many living in Ireland. So what happened?
The Saint Patrick's Day festivities we are familiar with today can be traced to American influence. Evidence of the first celebrations in the USA exist all the way back to 1600 in Florida and the 18th century in Boston. However, it was the mid 19th century after Irish immigrants flocked to American cities after fleeing famine infested Ireland that the holiday really started to take shape. Irish Americans longing for their homeland wanted a place to celebrate their identity particularly given the less than warm welcome many experienced in the early days in America. As numbers of Irish Americans grew, so did the celebrations.
Known for being friendly and welcoming, the Irish ultimately extended the celebration to others, even those who were not Irish. Everyone wanted to be Irish. Why not? Look how much fun people were having. Stereotypes of Ireland and Irish people began to creep into the festivities. Dancing Leprechauns and heavy drinking became popularized. However, while the day flourished in the USA, Ireland did not catch on to the frivolity until television became popular and widespread in the 1960's. Once Ireland was witness to the fun taking place in the USA, things began to change in the Emerald Isle. Pubs are now open on Saint Patrick's Day and the parade in Dublin attracts a million people!
A few popular Saint Patrick's Day traditions had their humble origins in America. Green beer was apparently created in New York in 1914 by an Irish American coroner from Co. Carlow. (I guess we can't completely blame the USA for this travesty but that doesn't mean you have to drink it.) We can credit Mayor Daley for first dyeing the Chicago river green in 1962. This is an annual tradition that takes place to coincide with Chicago's Saint Patrick's Day parade, typically held the Saturday before the actual day. Corned beef and cabbage was not a meal served in Ireland; however, Irish immigrants in America gravitated to it due to its availability and affordability upon their arrival from the famine.
Saint Patrick's Day is certainly a fun filled celebration for everyone. Depending on one's nationality how it is celebrated may differ. The traditions we know today definitely germinated in the USA. Like many things in America, things sometimes go overboard and can push boundaries of good taste (e.g. the popular Guinness, Baileys, Whiskey combo shooter known as "The Irish Car Bomb"). So enjoy how you like whether that means attending the parade, eating corned beef, sipping a Guinness, and/or savoring your favorite Irish Whiskey. Just try to avoid Guinness in a plastic cup, green beer, and waiting in line at a pub that doesn't have a good Irish Whiskey selection. And Finally, remember it is Paddy's Day not Patty's day. We are not celebrating your aunt on your mother's side or your favorite burger. Sláinte.
You can read more about the history of Saint Patrick's Day in the following links: