Ask just about anyone what holiday falls in March, and the answer will most likely be St. Patrick’s Day. There are others, notably Mardi Gras, followed by Ash Wednesday, International Women’s Day, and International Earth Day. We could also add the official start of spring (the Vernal Equinox) on the 20th or the re-start of Daylight Savings time on the 10th. But who celebrates changing their clocks?
One could argue for the celebratory primacy of Mardi Gras, but outside of a handful of cities, it’s not really a big deal. St. Patrick’s Day, however, is observed everywhere in the U.S. and in an ever-expanding array of international venues. So, it only makes sense to peek into the history of this yearly event. Right?
Yeah. I thought so, too.
Though not canonized by the church, Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland. But that isn’t the name he was born with, nor was he born there. Dubbed Maewyn Succat at birth, he later changed his name to Patricius, though he was also known in various times and places as Magonus and/or Cothirthiacus. Try saying that last one three times real fast.
According to two documents he wrote (in Latin), the Confessio and the Epistola to Coroticus (a letter to the leader of some Irish marauders), we know a fair amount about him. He lived on the west coast of Britain when the Roman Empire was busy crumbling. The legions which controlled the country had been called home to repel attacks by the Gauls in the late 300s and the Visigoths in the early 400s. Most were gone by the time Patrick reached his mid-teens and fell victim to Irish slavers.
Though his father was a leader in the early Christian church, young Patrick remained happily heathen. After six years as a slave, however, he lurched back to his religious roots. Two failed escape attempts later, he was captured by Franks and taken to the continent. In what is now France, Patrick learned first-hand from and about the monks who lived there. When allowed to return home, he studied hard enough to become a priest and vowed to bring Christianity to the Irish.
A very active clergyman, Patrick baptized countless people (some say 100,000), ordained numerous priests, vastly expanded the number of nuns, converted the sons of tribal kings, and helped establish over 300 churches. He did not, however, drive away any snakes. Ireland never had any snakes, except for the two-legged kind.
Irish folk living in Europe in the ninth and tenth centuries were already celebrating Saint Patrick’s feast day, but it wasn’t added to the liturgical calendar until the early 1600s. Oddly enough, back then the color associated with St. Patrick and the Feast Day was blue. It wasn’t until 1798 when Irish soldiers, dressed in green, fought the British during the Irish Rebellion. The Irish battle song was “The Wearing of the Green,” and it’s been associated with Ireland ever since.
And what about the emphasis we’ve seen on beer and booze in celebration of the holiday? That’s wildly out of historical character. In fact, Irish law didn’t allow pubs to be open on St. Patrick’s day until the latter half of the 20th century. It wasn’t until Budweiser began a big marketing push in the 1980s that the celebration became solidly linked to drinking. Thank you, Madison Avenue.
On second thought, I’m glad the holiday wasn’t co-opted by the folks who brought us green tea.
Sláinte! (Good health.)