St. Patrick … Who He Was and Why We Celebrate St. Patrick’s Day
St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated on March 17th and named for St. Patrick; one of the most- recognized patron saints of Ireland. Originally a Catholic holiday, St. Patrick’s Day became an early feast day during the 17th century. Today, St. Patrick’s Day is a celebration of Irish culture that is observed by many people, Irish or not. Why do people in Ireland, America and other countries around the world wear green-colored clothing, attend parades and festivals and drink “green” beverages to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day? Well, for one thing, it is a lot of fun. But we also celebrate St. Patrick’s Day to honor a man who did his part to bring Christianity to Ireland.
Historians say “Patrick” was born Maewyn Succat to wealthy parents in Scotland (part of Roman Britain --- England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland --- controlled by the Roman Empire ) sometime between 385 and 387 A. D. Maewyn’s father (Calpornius/Calphurnius) was a deacon and a tax collector; his grandfather (Potitus) was a priest in the Roman British church. Maewyn’s childhood was thought to be very comfortable.
At 16 years old, Maewyn was kidnapped from Britain and taken to Ireland where he was enslaved and forced to work as a shepherd for six years. Maewyn later wrote that, with his strong faith in God and daily prayers, he had “heard a voice” and “saw a vision” of a boat that was waiting for him. The young man escaped from his Irish captors, returned to Britain and entered the church. Maewyn became ordained as a priest; adopting the name of “Patrick” that was given to him by Pope Celestine. In A.D. 432, Bishop Patrick returned to Ireland to preach the gospel, establish churches, schools and monasteries and introduce Christianity to the people.
Two undated letters written by Patrick are accepted as authentic by religious leaders and historians; the Confessio (Declaration) and Epistola (letter to the soldiers of the Coroticus). In the Confessio, a sort of spiritual autobiography, Patrick describes his prayers, love of God, faith and the “voice” that led him to make his escape from captivity. During his captivity, Patrick leaned to speak Celtic; a language that would help him spread the word of Jesus Christ. Also in the Confessio, Patrick writes of unspecified charges made against him by fellow Christians but says that he did not accept gifts or gratuities for services performed (such as baptisms). In the Epistola, Patrick writes an open letter of the excommunication of Corocticus (Ceretic Guletic,) the king of Alt Clut (Dumbarton), who raided Ireland and took fellow Christians into slavery.
As with his exact birth date, the actual date of death for Patrick is not authenticated or agreed upon by historians. Before the 1940s, historians believed that Patrick died in or around the year 420 of the 5th century. More recent studies indicate Patrick’s death in Saul (Downpatrick) Ireland was on March 17th of the year 461 A. D. Adding to the confusion are the dates of certain events, such as the Acts of the Apostles, which Patrick wrote about in his letters. These events suggest a different timeline of his death; some historians think it could have occurred in the year A.D 493.
Patrick the Saint and St. Patrick’s Day
Canonization is the process where a religious organization, such as the Catholic Church, declares a well-respected person to be a “saint,” after that person has died. At some point after his death, the Roman Catholic Church venerated Patrick and canonized him to be the Patron Saint of Ireland. March 17th is the date believed to be when Patrick died, thus, the date is celebrated as a “feast” day. Although St. Patrick’s Day began as a religious Catholic holiday, it became a public holiday in Ireland in 1903. St Patrick’s Day is celebrated as a religious and secular holiday; it is a toast to Irish culture throughout Ireland and the world.
Legends of St. Patrick
St. Patrick was credited with banishing snakes from Ireland, but many forms of evidence have shown that there have never been snakes --- reptiles --- in the Emerald Isle. Symbols of serpents and snakes were common at that time; the Druids (Celtic people from the Iron Age) are thought to have worshipped the reptiles as gods. Thus, historians believe that St. Patrick’s establishment of churches, monasteries and schools while introducing the Irish people to Christianity is the way he “drove the snakes” out of Ireland. Legend also has it that St. Patrick taught the Irish the meaning of Trinity --- the Christian doctrine of unity; Father, Son and Holy Spirit as three people in one divine being; God --- by showing them a shamrock; a three-leaf clover.
Wearin’ O’ the Green
It started out as blue, the color associated with St. Patrick. However, over the years, green became St. Patrick’s color, associating it with the green grass of Ireland; the Emerald Isle. The green shamrock (three leaf clover) that was used by Patrick to explain the concept of the holy trinity became a symbol in Irish Catholic churches and social settings. In 1798, an uprising against British rule in Ireland had revolutionary soldiers wearing green uniforms. They and their supporters wore shamrocks on their clothing; garments were manufactured in green to represent a unified political support of their cause. Today, in many countries and especially in the United States, the “Wearin’ O’ the Green” on St. Patrick’s Day --- March 17th --- is to honor and celebrate Irish culture.
Today and Yesterday: St Patrick’s Day Parades & Celebrations in Ireland and America
In Ireland, although St. Patrick’s feast day was celebrated in the ninth and tenth centuries, it wasn’t until the early 1600s that St. Patrick’s Day was added to the Catholic Church’s liturgical calendar which determines when feast days should be observed. Several hundred years later in 1903, St. Patrick’s Day became an official public holiday in Ireland. The city of Dublin played host to the first St. Patrick’s Day parade in Ireland, held in 1931.
The first publicly-celebrated St. Patrick’s Day in the United States took place with a parade in Boston, in 1737. Among political and religious dignitaries, Boston-area Irish immigrant workers marched in the parade to indicate their unhappiness with their low socio-economic status. Irish soldiers in the British army held New York’s first St. Patrick’s Day parade in 1762 and the “holiday” was celebrated a few years later in New York pubs and taverns. Irish social clubs and aid societies cropped up in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries; participating in parades and other St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in major U.S. cities including (but not limited to) Boston, New York, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Chicago, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Kansas City.
Along with the religious services for Catholics (traditional Roman Catholics and those who do not accept complete jurisdiction of the Pope) and non-Catholics, Ireland, as well as America and other countries around the world, observe St. Patrick’s Day with parades, parties, festivals, foods, music and yes, “green” beer.
© 2014 Teri Silver
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