St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated annually on March 17, the anniversary of his death in the fifth century. The Irish have observed this day as a religious holiday for over 1,000 years. On St. Patrick’s Day, which falls during the Christian season of Lent, Irish families would traditionally attend church in the morning and celebrate in the afternoon. Lenten prohibitions against the consumption of meat were waived and people would dance, drink and feast–on the traditional meal of Irish bacon and cabbage.
But who was St. Patrick?
He lived during the fifth century, is the patron saint of Ireland and its national apostle. Born in Roman Britain, he was kidnapped and brought to Ireland as a slave at the age of 16. He later escaped, but returned to Ireland and was credited with bringing Christianity to its people.
In the centuries following Patrick’s death (believed to have been on March 17, 461), the mythology surrounding his life became ever more ingrained in the Irish culture: Perhaps the most well-known legend of St. Patrick is that he explained the Holy Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) using the three leaves of a native Irish clover, the shamrock. That's why the green color is seen everywhere on this date.
The Irish in America
Up until the mid-19th century, most Irish immigrants in America were members of the Protestant middle class. When the Great Potato Famine hit Ireland in 1845, close to 1 million poor and uneducated Irish Catholics began pouring into America to escape starvation.
Despised for their alien religious beliefs and unfamiliar accents by the American Protestant majority, the immigrants had trouble finding even menial jobs. When Irish Americans in the country’s cities took to the streets on St. Patrick’s Day to celebrate their heritage, newspapers portrayed them in cartoons as drunk, violent monkeys.
St. Patrick's Day today
Celebrations generally involve public parades and festivals, Irish traditional music sessions (céilithe), and the wearing of green attire or shamrocks.There are also formal gatherings such as banquets and dances, although these were more common in the past. Saint Patrick's Day parades began in North America in the 18th century but did not spread to Ireland until the 20th century.The participants generally include marching bands, the military, fire brigades, cultural organisations, charitable organisations,, and so on. However, over time, many of the parades have become more akin to a carnival. More effort is made to use the Irish language, especially in Ireland, where the week of Saint Patrick's Day is "Irish language week"
St. Patrick's Day in America
In 1848, several New York Irish Aid societies decided to unite their parades to form one official New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Today, that parade is the
world's oldest civilian parade and the largest in the United States, with over 150,000 participants. Each year, nearly 3 million people line the 1.5-mile parade route to watch the procession, which takes more than five hours. Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and Savannah also celebrate the day with parades involving between 10,000 and 20,000 participants each. In 2020, the New York City parade was one of the first major city events to be cancelled as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic; it was again cancelled in 2021.