Imagine you are in Boston and it is March 17. You are walking down the street with your family, when suddenly you hear a marching band in the distance. It sounds loud and fun, with fiddles and pipes and drums. What is that noise? It is getting closer and closer and you stand by and watch as around the corner come hundreds of people dressed in green. They are laughing and playing music. Some are wearing red wigs and fake beards. “What is going on?” you ask your parents. “Why, it’s St. Patrick’s Day of course” they reply.
St. Patrick’s Day is a special day that is celebrated around the world each year on March 17 to celebrate Irish culture and history. It is also a date meant to remember the death of St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland. St. Patrick’s day has become a large celebration around the world of Irish culture and pride, with parades, special foods, dancing, music and people wearing all things green!
But what is the history of St. Patrick’s Day and why do we celebrate it?
St. Patrick’s Day started as a day to celebrate the patron saint of Ireland. St. Patrick was born in Roman Britain in the 5th century and grew up with a father who was a deacon of their local church. So even though St. Patrick became the patron saint of Ireland, he was not actually Irish but actually British.
When Patrick was 16 years old, Irish raiders came to his village and he was kidnapped and brought to Ireland as a slave. A slave is someone who is held captive and has to do work for another person for no money. Patrick spent 6 years living in Ireland as a slave herdsman, taking care of cattle. He was sad living as a slave and turned to prayer and religion to keep his spirits up. He prayed regularly to escape so he could return home.
One night when he was 24, Patrick snuck away from his master and got onto a ship headed back to Britain. It was a difficult journey and Patrick didn’t have anything to eat on the way, so he nearly starved to death. However, Patrick made it successfully to the other side of the sea to his own country of Britain.
Patrick lived in Britain for a short while again. But one day while reading about the Irish people, he felt called to return to Ireland and teach the Irish people about his religion, Christianity. Although he had doubts about whether it was a good idea, he decided to return to Ireland, this time as a free man.
Patrick returned to Ireland and traveled broadly throughout the country, teaching people everywhere he went about his religion. It was a dangerous time to be traveling alone as a foreigner and trying to convert people. To convert means to change people’s thinking so that they believe the same things as you. However, Patrick had great faith in his mission and carried on, despite being arrested, put in chains, and threatened with death.
As Patrick traveled around Ireland and became more well known, myths and legends started to grow about him. Myths and legends are imaginary stories. One of these legends was that Patrick scared all of the snakes in Ireland out of the country and into the sea where they died. Some people believed that Patrick was also able to bring people back from the dead and that he was able to create food out of thin air.
One of the most well known legends about St. Patrick is that he explained the Christian concept of the Holy Trinity to Irish people by using the three leaves of an Irish clover or shamrock. Shamrocks have since become symbols of St. Patrick’s day.
St. Patrick died on March 17, 461 A.D. However, he did not actually become a saint until many years later, which is the normal process for Catholic sainthood. March 17th became celebrated around the world as “St. Patrick’s day” at first to celebrate him, and later to celebrate Irish cultural heritage generally. Cultural heritage means traditions and ways of life that have passed down through generations.
In Ireland today, St. Patrick’s day is celebrated as a religious holiday. Irish families celebrate by going to church in the morning and having a party in the afternoon. Irish people will usually dance and drink in their afternoon parties and eat a meal that includes meat, such as Irish bacon and cabbage.
In America and other places with many Irish immigrants, St. Patricks day is celebrated on March 17, but with different traditions. In these countries, people of Irish descent hold large annual parades featuring bagpipes and drums. Many people wear green and dress up.
The tradition started in America in the 1840s, when many Irish people left Ireland due to the Great Potato Famine of 1845. A famine is an extreme shortage of food. In the 1840s, nearly 1 million poor Irish people moved to America to escape starvation in Ireland. With so many Irish people now living in New York and other American cities, the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations grew in size and popularity.
In 1848, many New York Irish societies decided to join together to form one big St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Today, that parade is the largest parade in the United States with over 150,000 people participating each year and 3 million people watching on the side of the road. There are also very large St. Patrick’s Day parades held in other cities, including Boston and Chicago.
As Irish immigrants spread out over the United States and around the world, cities and countries developed their own traditions. This is especially true in the United States, Canada and Australia. Some common traditions include wearing shamrocks, which represents St. Patrick’s teachings to the Irish people. Many people like to plan Irish music, including fiddles and pipes, on St. Patrick’s day. There is a tradition of people carrying a snake staff in St. Patrick’s day parades to represent St. Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland.
In Chicago, the city even dyes the local river green for St. Patrick’s Day!
While Irish people eat bacon and cabbage on St. Patricks, Irish Americans now celebrate by eating a meal of corned beef and cabbage. This is because the first Irish immigrants to America were very poor and couldn’t afford the traditional bacon and cabbage that they ate back home. Instead they had corned beef and cabbage, having learned about this cheaper meat from their new Jewish neighbours in America.
Many listeners will likely have heard about the small Irish imp called a “leprechaun”. Leprechauns come from old Celtic belief in fairies, which were tiny, magical men and women. In old Celtic fairy tales, leprechauns were cranky little people that were responsible for mending the shoes of the other fairies. Leprechauns were also believed to be hiding gold and would use trickery to protect their hiding places. Today, many people like to dress up as leprechauns on St. Patrick’s Day.
One tradition that many children are familiar with is the practice of pinching people on St. Patrick’s day if they are not wearing green. Because green came to be seen as the color of Irish pride amongst Irish people in America, pinching those who were not wearing green started as a gentle way of reprimanding those who were not showing Irish pride. To reprimand means to scold or criticize someone. However, now-of-days, kids do this mostly just for fun. So don’t forget to wear something green on March 17th!
Have you ever seen and participated in St. Patrick’s Day celebrations? What are some of the ways that your family celebrates their cultural heritage?
If you do leave a comment or message on the Bedtime History Facebook or Instagram pages. We’d love to hear more about your family and cultural celebrations. And for those who celebrate, Happy St. Patrick’s Day!