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St. Patrick’s Day traditions, explained

People participate in a St. Patrick's Day parade.
People participate in a St. Patrick's Day parade.
Chris McGrath/Getty Images

St. Patrick’s Day, celebrated every year on March 17, has become synonymous with shamrocks, the color green, pinching, (if perchance you’ve forgotten to wear the color green), and plenty of guilt-free alcohol imbibing. But the holiday, commemorated in today’s green and shamrock-inflected Google Doodle, has a long, rich religious history.

The tradition goes all the way back to St. Patrick, who is credited with bringing Catholicism to Ireland. For centuries, his memory was honored with a feast and a trip to church.

How, then, did a holiday on the official Catholic calendar become associated with all the material trappings of modernity? Why do we know the holiday more for its alcohol and parades, its green beer and Shamrock Shakes, than for its religious meaning?

Who was St. Patrick, anyway?

St. Patrick’s story begins as a young man in the fifth century, when at age 16 he was kidnapped from his British home by Irish raiders and taken as a slave to Gaelic Ireland.

It’s a grim beginning to a story that would shape Ireland’s national holiday. But while captive in Ireland, working as a shepherd, Patrick "found God," who instructed him to escape to the Irish coast, where a ship would be waiting to ferry him home. What happened next is unclear — he either went straight back to Britain or took a detour through France.

What we do know is that he became a Catholic priest and eventually returned to Ireland, where he spent much of the rest of his life proselytizing to pagan Irishmen.

You may wonder why the shamrock is so deeply associated with this holiday. It’s because in his missionary work, St. Patrick supposedly used the clover to explain the holy trinity.

Because he was one of the first missionaries sent to the country, he spent much time in its western and northern reaches. Deeply associated with the Catholic Church structure there, he ordained priests, divided the country into dioceses, and founded several monasteries.

The mark he left on the country grew in legend over centuries, and now he is considered one of the country’s foremost saints. The Irish people remember him each March 17, the day it is said he died.

It’s unclear whether St. Patrick’s body is buried in Ireland, as legend has it. But while he was still alive, the man often said he was willing to die in Ireland so that his mission might prove successful.

How did St. Patrick’s Day become such a raucous celebration?

In Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day is not only a time for celebration but also a religious experience. Since the beginning of the 17th century, it has been celebrated as an official religious holiday on the Catholic calendar. The country’s banks and other businesses close down, and most Irish citizens attend Mass to give thanks for missionaries working around the world.

Because it’s a happy occasion, the Catholic restrictions on eating and drinking during Lent are also temporarily restricted. That might be why drinking, the most indulgent of pursuits, has come to be associated with the holiday.

Even so, the day remained a primarily religious occasion at least through the start of the 20th century, when Ireland — in a show of patriotism — added an annual military parade that ran through the streets of Dublin, Ireland’s capital.

But it was not until the 1960s that the parade was transformed into a spectacle primarily meant to entertain. And as a sign of the times, bars actually remained closed on St. Patrick’s Day until this decade.

What inspired the change? Arguably, the Irish saw how Americans were commemorating their holiday, and they got jealous.

For a fuller exploration of how America manufactured the modern cultural St. Patrick’s Day experience, check out this wonderful Time magazine story tracing its evolution. But suffice it to say that going as far back as the late 1700s, Irish Americans put on showy parades and celebrations on St. Patrick’s Day to assert their growing influence in America, over increasingly strident nativist unease.

Then, by the 20th century, American companies realized the marketing potential of all things green, and the country hasn’t looked back since. The St. Patrick’s Day spirit was so infectious that by the latter half of the 20th century it was imported back to Ireland, which embraced the holiday as a time for drinking and other debauchery.

What are a few other traditions I should be aware of?

These traditions are less steeped in history, but they’re worth knowing anyway – especially if you want to celebrate the saint properly yourself.

  • Eating corned beef and cabbage: This, again, is actually more of an American than Irish tradition. It dates back to the 19th century, when most Irish Americans were poor and could only afford the cheapest meat possible, corned beef. As for cabbage, it’s most likely included simply because it’s a spring vegetable.
  • Drowning the shamrock: Simply place a clover at the bottom of your cup, fill with Guinness or Irish whiskey, and drink up. It’s up to you whether you’d like to eat the shamrock or chuck it over your shoulder for good luck.
  • Wearing green: Actually, this color association is kind of a fluke. Originally, the original color of St. Patrick’s Day was blue. But for several reasons, green prevailed. Ireland is often referred to as the Emerald Isle, and its flag displays a green stripe. Irish Catholics typically wear green (Irish Protestants typically wear orange, the other prominent color on the Irish flag). And, of course, shamrocks are green, giving the color an added advantage.
  • Pinching others who are not wearing green: Rumor has it that leprechauns — who are most often imagined wearing green getups — pinch those around them who are not sporting similarly green apparel. That has evolved into humans pinching each other to display the disapproval we think the leprechauns would be showing. You won’t be surprised to know that this, too, is a largely American tradition. The Irish leprechauns of yore didn’t even wear green. But that won’t stop strangers from taking a pinch, so choose your outfit wisely.

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