St. Patrick’s Day is an annual holiday and feast that commemorates the passing of St. Patrick, a Christian missionary and bishop. Patrick lived in the 5th century and wrote several broad chronicles of his life, though many of the details can’t be confirmed and are considered speculative and circumstantial. It is believed that Patrick was born in England and was captured by Irish raiders while a young boy. He was taken to Ireland and held as a slave for about six years, working as a shepherd. He eventually escaped and returned home to England, where he embraced the Christian faith that gave him hope during his years in slavery.
Patrick eventually returned to Ireland as a missionary and is credited with converting many pagan tribal chiefs and wealthy land owners to Christianity. He also ordained a large number of clergy, adding to the speed with which Ireland became a mostly-Christian part of the world. He is believed to have died on or about March 17, 461 at the approximate age of 76, though there are conflicting records that make the dates of his birth and death fuzzy. March 17th was eventually accepted by historians and the church, at least ceremonially, as his date of death and became his day of recognition.
Several legends are associated with Patrick that seem to be nothing more than folklore. The first is that he drove all the snakes from Ireland. Scientists believe that after glaciers covering all of the island eventually melted away, snakes simply never inhabited the land. In short, there were no snakes in Ireland when Patrick arrived.
Another legend is that Patrick used the shamrock, a three-leafed clover, as a symbol of Christianity. The shamrock didn’t make its way into drawings and sculptures of Patrick until more than 1,000 years after his death. Some believe he may have used the shamrock to illustrate to potential converts the three entities of Christianity – Father, Son, Holy Spirit. Regardless, Patrick and the shamrock are considered linked to this day. A misconception about shamrocks is that they have four heart-shaped leafs. Clover with four leafs are not shamrocks, they are genetic mutations and because they are rare are considered good luck. But they should be referred to as a four-leaf clover, not a shamrock. Portraits of St. Patrick that show him holding a clover always show only three leafs.
Over time, St. Patrick became a patriotic symbol of Ireland, along with the color green and the shamrock. These form the foundation of Ireland’s identity and the holiday that bears St. Patrick’s name.
St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated world-wide, officially in some places and unofficially in others. In the US, it’s believed that over 30 million people claim some degree of Irish ancestry and embrace the historic significance of Patrick. The rest enjoy being Irish for the day as they sip Guinness or Harp and any of the green-colored cocktails formulated for this day of fun and drinking.
Celebrated annually on March 17th.