We hope you remembered to wear some green today, because it’s St. Patrick’s Day! This is the day to celebrate all things Irish, and many aspects of St. Pats Day have become all-American traditions.
For one thing, America has long been the home to the largest St. Patrick’s Day parade. The very first American one was held in New York City (as you might have guessed). That was in 1766! The U.S.A. didn’t actually exit as a separate country then, so it’s not surprising that this first parade was marched by Irish soldiers of the British Army.
The New York parade grew fast, (along with the Irish-American population), and by 1848 it was the largest St. Patrick’s Day parade in the whole world.
In Ireland, the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day “officially” began when the Catholic Church declared the 17th of March to be an official Christian holiday marking the arrival of Christianity in Ireland – and honoring the man associated with its arrival in that country. However, the Irish had been celebrating the day since long before then, (perhaps as far back as the 9th century).
While it’s an ancient religious holiday in Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day didn’t’ become an official public holiday in the country until 1903. Here are the origins of some of the most widely-practiced St. Patrick’s Day traditions:
Wearing of Green – This tradition dates back to at least the 1640s, when the green harp flag was flown by the Irish Catholic Confederation, (during a time of self-government in Ireland).
Green was actually a controversial color for decades, since it was long associated with Irish nationalism. One eighteenth century Anglo-Irish society adopted blue as the official color of St. Patrick’s Day.
It wasn’t really until the 19th century that green again became less controversial, as a symbol of Irish-ness around the world.
Parades – As with many Catholic holidays, St. Patrick’s Day has long included religious processionals in many places where it was celebrated. Given that it had been a feast day, (and an often raucous one at that), the morphing of a somber processional into a great column of movement becomes plausible. Add in politics, and you get a parade.
Feasting/Festing – Well, it was a Feast Day. The Church lifted the Lenten restrictions on eating and drinking just for the day – which of course intensified peoples’ appetites. Interestingly, it was only in the 1990s that the Republic of Ireland took steps to create a modern Festival of St. Patrick’s Festival in Ireland.
Corned Beef and Cabbage – This is an American thing, sorry! Corned beef production has a long history in Ireland, but it was not a very happy one for most Irish people, (foreign landlords, exploitation, misuse of farmland, famine – all to make something that few Irish workers could afford to buy). However, Irish immigrants to U.S. cities found the store shelves full of canned corned beef that they could sometimes afford to buy with their wages. It therefore became an Irish/American dish.
Drinking – Imbibing on St. Patrick’s Day is a tradition that goes way back. As mentioned above, the lifting of Lenten restrictions was being one big factor in encouraging drinking. But there’s more to it than that: according to legend, St. Patrick himself once used whiskey to teach a lesson in generosity to a stingy innkeeper.
While drinking has long been a part of the St. Patrick’s Day tradition, there’s no reason why anyone has to feel pressured to partake in this aspect of the celebration. After all, the day is about much, much more than partying.
Its history is intertwined with the long, global march and impressive accomplishments of the Irish people. While Guinness is a part of that rich history, so are James Joyce and George Bernard Shaw, Rory Gallagher and Van Morrison. There are many ways to celebrate the Irish while sober.
But if you are going to drink, take care – and appoint a designated driver. A little green food coloring in your beer won’t make you any less prone to stupid, and it won’t help with the hangover, either.