The St. Patrick’s Day celebrations that take place all over America this weekend will feature three-leaf clovers, lucky charms, green beer, buttons and shirts shouting “Kiss me, I’m Irish”—and similar shenanigans. The Chicago River turns green; other cities have their parade route painted green. Many surnames change overnight—even mine, from Gruen (German) to Green (Irish).
But all such Irish themes and good-natured fun have little to do with the real Saint for whom the holiday is named. The one day of wild celebrations surrounding Patrick and the legends surrounding the man himself, took centuries to shape. They make for an interesting story.
Patrick had been an apostle, priest and Bishop of Ireland when he died on March 17, 461 A.D. The Catholic Church in 1631 established that March date as a Feast Day to honor St. Patrick, who for 1,000 years prior had been the Patron Saint of Ireland. Much of what is known about Patrick comes from letters to family in Britain and the “Declaration,” a faith statement allegedly written by Patrick himself.
Here’s what we can reasonably piece together: At age of sixteen, he was kidnapped by Irish raiders in search of slave labor; they had come to Wales, Scotland, or some other nearby area outside of Ireland. He spent six years in Ireland serving as a shepherd, and during this time he “found God.” The “Declaration” says that God told Patrick to flee to the coast, where a ship would be waiting to whisk him back to Britain, then under Roman control. With evangelical fervor Patrick returned to Northern Ireland, where he is said to be “lucky enough” to convert “thousands” of the pagan Irish druids to the Christian faith. This supposed luck of his is evident in the lucky-themed merchandise being sold everywhere for St. Patrick’s Day.
Mass conversions evidently did happen back in 5th Century Ireland, and Patrick did go on to become a priest and later a bishop. But as a Christian pastor, I would add that such conversions have less to do with “luck of the Irish” and a lot more to do with the expansive grace of God.
Little else is known about who the man really was, as details of his life are the stuff of legend and folklore. One tradition, seeking to burnish Patrick’s reputation as an evangelist, adds that St. Patrick drove out all the snakes from Ireland. As this pop story goes, St. Patrick was fasting when snakes attacked him, so he chased all snakes into the ocean. However, scientists insist there have never been snakes in Ireland during the post-glacial period. The natural absence of snakes, and the symbolism of the snake standing for the Devil, would explain the origins of this story.
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Legend says that St. Patrick was born Maewyn Succat, but that after he became a priest, he changed his name to Patrick, or rather Patricius—Latin for “father figure.” Likewise, according to legend, the shamrock used for St. Patrick’s Day recalls how he would use the shamrock to symbolize the Holy Trinity. The three-leafed plant is also at the root of the green color theme.
Since the holiday falls during the 40 days of Lent, it provides Christians a day off from the usual restraints of abstinence and moderation leading up to Easter.
Around the 1720s, the Church lamented that this holiday had gotten out of control, so Irish establishments banned beer for the day.
That green beer is now so plentiful on March 17 is a late-20th century addition to the St. Patrick’s Day tradition. Ireland had to repeal a centuries-old law—what we used to call “Sunday blue laws” in America—that had shut down everything for the day, pubs included. Blue laws from a bygone era were meant to promote a day of worship and rest.
How ironic that Sunday blue laws have been replaced by Sunday’s green beer to promote a holy day. Thanks to a marketing push from Budweiser in the 1980s, green beer has been flowing ever since. What flows out of the holiday celebrations today bears little resemblance to St. Patrick. May your Sunday celebration be a peaceful and holy day.