Unless you’ve been living under the Blarney Stone you already know that March 17 is St. Patrick’s Day. It’s the one day each year that everyone and anyone calls themselves Irish – if not by birthright, then in spirit. If you have been living under the Blarney Stone, lucky you! We bet you can share a thing or two about how a religious feast day commemorating the famed Irish patron saint who brought Christianity to Ireland ended up being a day celebrated almost globally, usually involving copious amounts of green beer and whisky shooters.
St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated in more countries around the world than any other single-day national festival, largely due to America’s enthusiasm for what many consider a holiday, although it is not an official holiday in America.
Parades are the heartbeat of St. Patrick Day festivities in America. This is not surprising, since the first parade held in St. Patrick’s honor took place in America, not Ireland, in 1601 in what is now St. Augustine, Florida. And the first actual St. Patrick’s Day parade also took place in America, in 1737, although it was pretty much just a stroll down the middle of a street in Boston by a few Irish Protestants to honor the patron saint of their motherland. The first St. Patrick’s Day parade in New York City was held in 1762, fourteen years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence and was organized by Irish troops serving in British colonies. Today the world’s biggest St. Patrick’s Day celebration is the annual parade in New York City, where more than two million spectators line the parade route, all claiming to be Irish, at least for the day.
History of St. Patrick's Day
The Catholic Church first recognized March 17 as a feast day commemorating Ireland’s best-known and most beloved patron saint, Saint Patrick, in 1631. With rare exception, March 17 always fell during the Christian holy season of Lent, when alcohol consumption was prohibited by the Church. But on Saint Patrick’s feast day, the ban on alcohol was lifted, presumably because it was a feast day, and feasting usually included alcohol.
Saint Patrick’s feast day in Ireland remained a traditionally pious religious day. Irish laws eventually curtailed the use of alcohol during the feast on March 17 by mandating that all pubs remain closed on that day. This was Irish law until it was repealed in the 1970s. The day continued to be and still is observed as a feast day by the Church of Ireland, the Catholic Church, the Anglican Communion, the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Lutheran Church. However, when the Irish government became aware of a growing interest in St. Patrick’s Day by American tourists in the mid-1990s, they launched a national campaign to convert America’s fascination with St. Patrick’s Day and Irish culture into tourist dollars.
Meanwhile in America, more than one million Irish men, women and children were immigrating through Ellis Island in the 1800s. They faced oppressive discrimination in America, leaving most unemployed and living in severe poverty in New York City tenements. As their numbers grew the Irish discovered strength in unity and rallied together to celebrate their beloved patron saint with a parade every March 17. The practice of St. Patrick Day parades and festivals followed Irish immigrants as they made their way across America’s heartland and into the deep south seeking cheap farmland and job opportunities.
As for our obsession with heavy drinking on St. Patrick’s Day? This appears to be a modern American phenomenon not firmly rooted in Irish tradition. But the Irish are not complaining. When they first came to America, the Irish were rejected and despised. Now everyone wants to be Irish on St. Patrick’s Day. How great is that? The more Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, the merrier.
Erin go Bragh!