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As we celebrate “St. Patrick’s Day,” I wonder how many of us have taken the time to understand who we are celebrating or why we will wear green and the Irish Shamrock will be proudly displayed everywhere. How many realize that today we will publically remember and celebrate the life of a Christian Missionary? For that matter, how many people understand the Christian significance of the Shamrock?
St. Patrick’s Day has been celebrated all over the world for centuries. St. Patrick’s Day honors one of the most recognized patron saints of Ireland, St. Patrick, and his role in bringing Christianity to Ireland.
St. Patrick, it has been said, used the shamrock to teach
the Christian doctrine to the Irish. As a result, the shamrock has become the symbol of St. Patrick’s Day (at some point in the 17th century) and of Irish culture in general.
Interestingly, one of the most well-known and widely celebrated Irishman wasn’t even Irish. St. Patrick was of Scottish-Roman English descent. His real name was said to have been Maewyn Succat. He eventually became known as Patrick due to his Anglicized Roman name. No one is exactly sure when he was born or when he died, although some believe he lived from AD 387-461. The day of his death was March 17th, thus the day we celebrate his memory.
According to classics professor Philip Freeman of Luther College in Iowa, St. Patrick was born in Britain around A.D. 390 to an
aristocratic Christian family. At age 16, he was kidnapped and taken to tend sheep as a slave in the mountainous countryside of Ireland for seven years. According to Freeman, it was during this time that “he got a religious conversion . . . and became a very deeply believing Christian.”
According to folklore, a voice came to Patrick in his dreams, telling him to escape. He found passage on a pirate ship back to Britain, where he was reunited with his family. The voice then told him to go back to Ireland. “He gets ordained as a priest from a bishop, and goes back and spends the rest of his life trying to convert the Irish to Christianity,” Freeman said.
According to St. Patrick’s Day lore, he used the three leaves of a shamrock to explain the Christian holy trinity: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Patrick’s work in Ireland was tough – he was constantly beaten by thugs, harassed by the Irish royalty, and admonished by his British superiors. After he died on March 17, 461, he was largely forgotten. In the years that followed, mythology grew around the memory of Patrick, and centuries later he was honored as the patron saint of Ireland.
St. Patrick has never been formally canonized by a Pope. Instead, various Christian churches have declared that he is a Saint in Heaven (he is in the List of Saints). St. Patrick is honored with a feast day on the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church (USA) on March 17. St. Patrick is also venerated in the Orthodox Church, especially among English-speaking Orthodox Christians living in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland and in North America.
St. Patrick’s Day became an official public holiday in Ireland in 1903. The first St. Patrick’s Day parade in the Irish Free State was staged in Dublin in 1931. This, however, was not the first St. Patrick’s Day parade. In fact, the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Montreal, Canada was first held in 1824 – 100 years earlier.
Despite the Irish-Canadian history, according to Professor Freeman, “St. Patrick’s Day was basically invented in America by Irish-Americans.” Timothy Meagher, an Associate Professor and Irish-American history expert at Catholic University in Washington DC, says Irish charitable organizations originally celebrated St. Patrick’s Day with banquets in places such as Boston, Massachusetts; Savannah, Georgia; and Charleston, South Carolina.
Eighteenth-century Irish soldiers fighting with the British in the U.S. Revolutionary War held the first St. Patrick’s Day parades. Some soldiers, for example, marched through New York City in 1762 to reconnect with their Irish roots. Other parades followed in the years and decades after, including well-known celebrations in Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago, primarily in flourishing Irish immigrant communities. “It becomes a way to honor the saint but also to confirm ethnic identity and to create bonds of solidarity,” said Meagher.
Enjoy the day!