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Saint Patrick's Day

© John Keith 2009

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The History of St. Patrick and the Origins of St. Patrick's Day Celebrations

March 17th is the day of celebration of Saint Patrick, the Patron Saint of Ireland. Celebrations, of course, take place not only in Ireland and Britain, but also in Canada, the US, Australia and New Zealand, and wherever there are people of Irish descent.  There are celebrations in churches, parades through city streets, and of course the playing of Celtic music, singing of Irish songs, and partying in pubs.  On Saint Patrick's Day, many people observe the "wearing of the green", which is wearing a green shirt or green sweater, but originally it was the wearing of a shamrock.  A shamrock is a clover-like plant that grows in Ireland as well as in other places in Europe.  Green is also symbolic of Ireland, the Emerald Isle, where the bright green landscape is unforgettable to those lucky enough to visit.  On St. Patrick's Day, many people drink Irish Guinness in pubs or even drink green beer, which is specially prepared for the occasion.

March 17th is the day of Saint Patrick's death in 461 A.D., and the day has been a Christian Holy Day ever since.  Usually, the day of celebration of important people is the day of their birth, their birthday, but for Patrick as well as other Christian saints, the day that is celebrated is the day of the saint's death, which, as the church sees it, is the birth of the saint into heaven.  Patrick was born around 387 AD, in the Roman province of Britain, in the western part of the island which we now call Wales.  This was before the coming of the English from what is now Germany and Denmark.  His family were prosperous, Romanized Britons, and they were Christian, as not long before this, Christianity had become the accepted religion of the Roman Empire.  

When Patrick was 16 years old, he was captured by Irish raiders, and he was carried off to Ireland.  Ireland, of course, is an island located west of Britain; it was never part of the Roman Empire.  The religion there was Druidism, the pagan, nature-based religion of the Celts, the people living in all the British Isles when the Romans came.  The Druids' most famous monument is Stonehenge, a huge and mysterious stone circle in England.   For six years, Patrick was held in Ireland as a slave.  While working as a lonely herdsman or as a shepherd tending sheep on the green hills of Ireland, Patrick become very religious, and he began to pray many times a day.  According to Patrick's own writings, one day a voice told him that it was time for him to leave Ireland, and he was told that his ship was ready.  Patrick walked over 320 kilometres across Ireland to a port on the Irish Sea.  There he indeed found a ship which took him back to his family in Britain.  

Later, another revelation came to Patrick.  In a dream, an angel told him to return to Ireland to convert the Irish from Druidism to Christianity.  Patrick then studied for many years to become a priest, and just as the angel had directed him, he returned to Ireland as a missionary.  In legend, he is said to have rid Ireland of snakes, and he famously used the Irish shamrock, with it's three small leaflets on one stalk, to explain the Christian Trinity - the threefold nature of God as Father, Son and the Holy Ghost.  In other stories, Patrick took the circle of the pagan sunwheel and added it to the cross, and this became the beautiful Celtic Cross, in which a circle joins together the four arms of the cross.  

Scientists, however, doubt that there were ever any snakes in Ireland, but the truth is perhaps more interesting than legend.  Snakes were used as a symbol of the Druid religion, and although Patrick most probably did not actually drive snakes from Ireland, he did displace the old Celtic religion, which is symbolized by the snakes.  As well, the shamrock, used by Patrick to explain the Holy Trinity, was first a mystic symbol of the Druids, and it was also connected to the Celtic Sun wheel.  Saint Patrick, scholars tell us, used the symbols, ideas, and practices of the Druids to help these pagans to understand and accept Christianity as a natural extension of their own religion.   Patrick was the world's most successful missionary; by the time of his death, almost all of Ireland had become Christian.   Moreover, he had accomplished this without bloodshed; no Christian martyrs died for their religion in converting the Irish.

Other traditions, legends, and stories related to Ireland and St. Patrick's Day are connected to the old Druid religion.  Leprechauns, the "little people" of the forest are described as fairies or elves, but perhaps they were Druid priests observing their nature-based practices.  The "luck of the Irish", lucky charms, and being lucky enough to find a Leprechaun's "pot o' gold" at the end of the rainbow are probably related to the magic of the Druids.  Druid traditions, folk tales, and beliefs lead from King Arthur's Merlin, through stories of the magic practices of witches and warlocks, right down to our modern-day warlock, Harry Potter.

Saint Patrick's Day, March 17th , takes place during the Christian time of Lent, the forty sombre days leading up to Easter.  Christians were supposed to fast and avoid any festivities, and in modern times people give up something they enjoy for Lent, as a way to bring themselves closer to God.  In Ireland, starting in the middle ages, the Irish escaped the solemn practices of Lent for one day in order to celebrate St. Patrick's Day.  This is when the happy celebrations of St. Patrick's Day in pubs and parties really began.

With the spread of Irish immigrants around the world, especially during the Irish potato famine in the 1840's, Irish traditions and celebrations have spread around the world.  St. Patrick's Day celebrations have been taking place in North America since 1737 in Boston and since 1762 in New York.  In Canada, there has been a St. Patrick's Day Parade every year since 1824.  

Everyone, everywhere can join the festivities to celebrate the patron saint of Ireland and celebrate Irish culture by the wearing of the green, by watching a "St. Paddy's" day parade, or simply by raising a glass or two of green beer or Guinness in a pub.  

On St. Patrick's Day, they say, everyone is Irish.

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