Observed on March 17th every year and now a secular holiday, St. Patrick’s Day was originally a celebrated feast day for the patron saint of Ireland. Today, the holiday involves wearing green and celebrating all things Irish, including learning about Ireland and St. Patrick’s Day in the classroom. However, St. Patrick was not even originally from Ireland. Born as Maewyn, Patrick was a Briton who was kidnapped and brought to Ireland as a slave in the fifth century. He escaped his captors and joined a monastery in France – then called Gaul – and later returned to Ireland as a missionary. Patrick is credited as bringing Christianity to Ireland, though really he was more responsible for making Christianity visible and more powerful in the country. He confronted the druids who were still celebrating older, pagan religions and forced them to stop their practice. After Patrick’s death in 461 AD, he was named the patron saint of Ireland. Many of the symbols we associate with St. Patrick’s day come from St. Patrick’s Christian origins; the shamrock is a symbol of the Trinity and the popularity of wearing green comes from the same source.
Celebrations of St. Patrick’s feast day were small and typically religious at first. Celebrants would attend church and hold a special feast meal to honor the coming of Christianity to Ireland. In the 18th and 19th century, however, large numbers of Irish citizens were forced to leave their country due to famine and lack of work. Many of these immigrants headed to America. They brought the celebration of St. Patrick’s day with them as a reminder of home. Corned beef and cabbage was an affordable feast style meal for the poor Irish Americans on this day and, eventually, became a traditional meal for the holiday. The first parades for St. Patrick’s day were held by Irish soldiers in the Civil War and the holiday became more and more secular as years went on. Eventually, the holiday became a celebration of all things Irish and was latched onto by Irish immigrants as a way to celebrate home and their heritage. As decades passed, even non-Irish Americans got involved in the spirit of celebration with businesses and restaurants offering special meals and sales, classrooms celebrating by studying Irish history and making timelines of events or studying the history of saints, and some cities, like Chicago, making large, festive displays like dyeing their river green each year. For a quick visual of St. Patrick’s day history and facts check out this infographic from the History Channel.