Today, March 17, is the Feast Day of St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland. When I was growing up, and even as an adult, although I knew of the holiday, I hadn’t thought much about its origins. My only understanding was the holiday was Irish and celebrated a saint I knew nothing about. When my children were very young, one year in our history studies the curriculum suggested the idea of reading about this holiday and the life of St. Patrick. I went to the library and checked out a few books and read them to my children, amazed at the story, a story I had known nothing about. I didn’t grow up in a liturgical tradition, where perhaps these stories are more widely shared and well known.
St. Patrick was born in Roman Britain (which is now England, Scotland, or Wales) in the 5th century. When he was sixteen, Patrick was kidnapped and taken to Ireland to work as a slave. After six years, he escaped, but then returned. Some say his return was because he had a dream that the Irish asked him to come back to their country, and he saw the dream as a message from God. St. Patrick returned to Ireland and converted many Irish to Christianity. He died on March 17, 461, and by then had set up monasteries, churches, and schools. Legends surround him, such as he drove snakes out of Ireland and used a shamrock to explain the Trinity (which explains the use of the shamrock on St. Patrick’s Day).
The Irish have observed the Feast of St. Patrick since the 9th or 10th century. Falling during Lent, Irish families would attend church in the morning and celebrate in the afternoon. Prohibitions during Lent were set aside for the day, allowing people to eat meat, dance, and feast.
Records show a St Patrick’s Day parade was held on March 17, 1601, in a Spanish colony in what is now St Augustine, FL. A hundred years later, homesick Irish soldiers serving in the English military marched in New York City on March 17, 1772 to honor St. Patrick. Enthusiasm grew and other cities joined in celebrating, too.
Today, cities hold St. Patrick’s day parades all over America, with cities such as New York and Boston hosting large celebrations. The New York City St. Patrick’s Day is the largest St. Patrick’s Day Parade in the world, attracting over 2 million people, and the parade is older than the country of the U.S. itself.
Chicago began dyeing the Chicago River green since 1962 in honor of the day. Originally, city officials released 100 pounds of green vegetable dye in the river, keeping it green for a week. Today, they use only 40 pounds of dye, turning the river green for only a few hours. People all around the world celebrate the St. Patrick Feast Day, including Canada, Australia, Japan, Singapore, and Russia.
In Ireland, St Patrick’s day had been viewed mostly as a religious observance, and up until the 1960s, they had laws that forbid bars from being open that day. In 1903, St. Patrick’s day switched from being a holy day for Catholics to an official Irish public holiday. Pubs were closed for the day until the 1970s. Ireland embraced the celebratory side of St. Patrick’s Feast in the 90’s to bring tourist revenue in the country.
Now, the celebration is largely a cultural and secular event and celebration of Irish culture.
People eat foods include corned beef and cabbage, Irish soda bread, and champ (an Irish dish made of creamy mashed potatoes and scallions). In 1798, the year of the Irish Rebellion, the color green became associated with St Patrick’s Day. In the U.S., people wear green, but interestingly, the original color associated with St Patrick was blue. St Patrick’s Day is always on March 17.
St. Patrick’s real name is Maewyn Succat. Patrick means “Patricius” or “Patrick” from the Latin word for “father figure.” It is interesting how far our knowledge of the origins of our holidays has veered from their actual beginnings. Now, when I celebrate, as I make Irish soda bread on this day, I recall the story of a young man who did the unthinkable, going back to his captors, following a call to share good news with those who had enslaved him.
Below is a prayer attributed to St. Patrick.
I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through the belief in the threeness,
Through confession of the oneness
Of the Creator of Creation.
I arise today
Through God’s strength to pilot me:
God’s might to uphold me
God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s eye to look before me,
God’s ear to hear me,
God’s word to speak for me,
God’s hand to guard me,
God’s way to lie before me,
God’s shield to protect me,
God’s host to save me
From snares of devils,
From temptations of vices,
From everyone who shall wish me ill,
Afar and anear,
Alone and in multitude.
Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.
Prasanta Verma, a poet, writer, and artist, is a member of The Contemplative Writer team. Born under an Asian sun, raised in the Appalachian foothills, Prasanta currently lives in the Midwest, is a mom of three, and also coaches high school debate. You can find her on Twitter @VermaPrasanta, Instagram prasanta_v_writer, and at her website: https://pathoftreasure.wordpress.com/.