St. Patrick’s Day has become widely accepted as a fun holiday when people of all cultural backgrounds channel their inner Irishmen. But many St. Patrick’s Day revelers do not understand the holiday’s origins or why it is celebrated. Contrary to its modern associations, St. Patrick’s Day commemorates one of the most important Irish saints–the missionary who introduced Christianity to Ireland.
As you savor some corned beef and cabbage this year, here are a few interesting facts to contemplate about “St. Patty’s Day”:
St. Patrick wasn’t Irish—and his name wasn’t Patrick! Born with the name Maewyn Succat to Roman-British parents in Wales or Scotland, he was kidnapped and taken to Ireland as a slave at the age of 16. He escaped and later became a priest, at which point he adopted the name “Patricius.” He earned his place in history by returning to Ireland in the year 432 and converting the country’s pagans to Christianity. Despite St. Patrick’s heritage, March 17 is a much-celebrated national holiday in Ireland and Northern Ireland.
St. Patrick used shamrocks as a teaching tool. According to legend, he employed the plant’s three leaflets to explain the concept of the Holy Trinity.
The old legend that St. Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland was likely a metaphor. According to fossil records, Ireland never had a problem with snakes in the first place. During the Ice Age, the country’s climate was too cold for reptiles, and the surrounding seas have prevented serpentine infiltration since then.
Irish immigrants in the U.S. transformed St. Patrick’s Day into a festive, secular holiday that recognizes Irish culture as a whole, rather than its religious origins. This explains why the country’s largest celebrations take place in cities with large Irish populations. For example, New York City hosts one of world’s largest St. Patty’s Day parades, while Chicago has been commemorating the holiday by coloring its river with nearly 40 tons of green dye each year since 1962!