Today, March 17, is a liturgical feast day that Catholics throughout the world celebrate in memory of a man who lived long ago. It’s also a day when secular celebrations and festive activities (like parades and parties) are a central focus in many communities. There are a lot of myths and legends surrounding this day, St. Patrick’s Day. What’s real and what’s not? How did leprechauns and pots of gold get mixed in with Christian evangelizing and the Catholic faith?
Don’t be surprised if you see lots of green things today! You might even see green milk or green eggs (and ham, perhaps? ::winks::), as well as green hair, glitter, hats and more. There are several things you might not know about St. Patrick’s Day or Patrick, the man in whose honor our celebrations take place. Read on, to find out, and let’s start with the color green!
The original St. Patrick’s Day color was blue
If people from prior centuries were to see the splashes of green everywhere on St. Patrick’s Day, they’d be confused. There is an image of Patrick from the 13th century. In it, he is wearing sky blue robes. King George III established an order of chivalry in the “Kingdom of Ireland” called “Order of St. Patrick,” which was to be represented with the color blue. He founded the order in 1783. Henceforth, people referred to sky blue as “Patrick’s color.”
Some 15 years later, during the Irish rebellion, the green shamrock (which Patrick used to teach people about God, as you will soon read about in the next section) became a symbol of nationalism. The saying “wearing the green” meant to show one’s loyalty for autonomous Ireland. From there, the color green began to replace Patrick’s color in all celebrations of Irish heritage. To this day, as you know, most people associate green with St. Patrick’s Day!
The shamrock was not originally a symbol of luck on St. Patrick’s Day
Many stories and films and sayings associated with this day of celebration include mention of shamrocks. Throughout the United States, “shamrocks” are typically called clovers and grow in abundance in many people’s yards. A shamrock usually has three leaves, although there are some with four, as well. As time passed, people considered finding a four-leaf clover as good luck. Pretty soon, all shamrocks became associated with “luck.” Leprechauns, pots of gold, and other magic became woven into the fabric of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations.
However, Christians do not believe in luck. They believe in God’s sovereignty. All things happen in accordance with God’s plan, not as mere coincidence or magic. Patrick used a shamrock to teach people about the Trinity. Three divine persons in one, true God. Not only does a shamrock have three leaves. It is sort of shaped like a cross, as well. Patrick used this common “weed” to teach the people about the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It was a way of taking a complex and unfathomable mystery and simplifying it in a way the average person could understand.
Patrick did not chase snakes out of Ireland
As is often the case when a story is told again and again throughout generations of people, legends and myths became associated with the story of Patrick. One such story attributes lack of snakes in Ireland to a supposed miracle that occurred when Patrick stuck his rod and staff into the ground along the shore. Some people consider the story symbolic for “chasing sin away” or “chasing the devil” out of the land. The fact is that there have never been snakes in Ireland because the climate there is not conducive to their habitat.
Ireland doesn’t celebrate the way the Western world does
The way the West celebrates St. Patrick’s Day is quite different from the way Irish Catholics in Ireland celebrate the feast day. Here, people dye rivers, beer, food and more, all green. They celebrate “The luck o’ the Irish” more than “The One, True God” that Patrick loved and shared with the world. Similarly to Christmas, Easter, St. Valentine’s Day and other Christian celebrations, people secularized today’s feast day.
In Ireland, Catholics (and many non-Catholic Christians) revere Patrick as a great man. He is beloved to the people because his courage, kindness and teachings enlightened people. People who once lived in darkness came to know the one, true God because of Patrick. Immigrants who settled in America, after traveling across the sea from Ireland, are the ones who started to add secular elements to St. Patrick’s feast day. The focus became distorted. Is it wrong to incorporate celebrations of Irish heritage in with celebrations and honor given to God and to a man who lived his life sharing God’s truth with others? Of course, not. Should people forget all about Patrick and God in favor of wild, drunken parties and attention to luck, magic and the underworld? Well, that’s another question entirely, isn’t it?
Patrick began his journey in faith as an enslaved teenager
One of the most amazing things about the man who is honored on St. Patrick’s Day is that he began his life of faith in great turmoil. First of all, Patrick was not Irish. He was British and Italian! At age 16, Irish raiders kidnapped him. They took him to Ireland, where he was enslaved as a shepherd for at least six years. During this time, he prayed much and gave his heart to God. He also had visions and heard God’s voice in his heart. In response to what he believed God was telling him, Patrick escaped his captors.
The most amazing thing about this young man is what happened after all of that. He became a priest (then bishop) and requested permission to return to the very place where he had been held in captivity. He had had visions of the people he knew in Ireland. They begged him to return to teach them about God. Patrick felt this was God’s calling in his life. So, you see — what we really celebrate on St. Patrick’s Day is a young man who devoted his entire life to God. A man who was taken from his family as a teenager and faced unthinkable suffering for years. We celebrate a man who, despite such suffering, longed to return to the very people who had abused him, in order to teach them about God’s love and mercy and forgiveness.
Now you know the true cause of celebration of St. Patrick’s Day! Keep it in mind, and share it with others! And, if you’re looking for some light-hearted reading with a bit o’ Irish humor, you’ll love this post from our archives, which tells the family tales of one of our writers who thought they were Irish but…