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All things GREEN:

The true traditions of St. Patrick’s Day

March 5, 2010

It is said that on St. Patrick's Day, everyone is Irish. That goes for even those people without a drop of blood originating from the Emerald Isle coursing through their veins.

But just where did some of the more well-known St. Patrick's Day traditions come from and how closely do they resemble those implemented in Ireland itself?

When you think of St. Patrick's Day in the United States, what comes to mind?

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Well, for one, there is the color green.

Everyone is encouraged to wear it. Those that don't run the risk of being pinched at best, possibly slugged playfully and ridiculed at worst.

Then there are the parades.

Large cities across the country host St. Patrick's Day parades, as do smaller communities with large populations of Irish-heritage citizens.

And what would St. Patrick's Day be without the Chicago River being died green, a practice that has continued since 1962 when the city's pollution-control workers dropped 100 pounds of green vegetable dye into the river.

Speaking of green liquid, the obsession with adding green food coloring to alcoholic beverages on St. Patrick's Day has become a staple in the United States.

Using the holiday as an excuse to over-imbibe in alcoholic drink and revelry is another.

All of these are must-haves for a good St. Patrick's celebration in the U.S., as well as other countries throughout the world.

But just how do they compare to the origins of the holiday, and how its been celebrated in Ireland?

There answer is, they don't. At least until recently, when the finer points of American-style celebration have crept their way into Ireland's festivities.

An excuse for drunkenness

It's no secret the Irish love their drink.

A 2004 study by the World Health Organization ranked Ireland No. 2, behind only the Czech Republic, in per capita consumption of beer.

Then throw in the stereotypes, some negative, some humorous and embraced, about the Irish's love of all things alcohol and you have a built in misconception that it takes a pint or two to feel "truly" Irish.

But ironically enough, in this beer loving nation, pubs were forbidden to be open on St. Patrick's Day all the way up until the 1970s.

Secular vs. Religious

That's because while in most countries, St. Patrick's Day is an excuse to let your hair down and party into the night, in Ireland, it's a national holiday that began as a religious feast day.

After all, there is that "St. Patrick" in St. Patrick's Day. He is the patron saint of Ireland and is credited with spreading Christianity throughout the country, helping convert the native pagan population.

He was honored with a feast day in his by the Catholic religion and the day is also a holy day of obligation for Catholics in Ireland.

Even today, with the exceptions of restaurants and pubs, most businesses and government offices shut down for the day.

Traditionally, Catholics in Ireland attended mass the morning of St. Patrick's Day to honor their patron saint and also pray for spiritual renewal and to honor the missionary work done throughout the world.

After all, while Patrick's exact place of birth is speculated, he wasn't native to Eire. His conversion of the people, was in fact, missionary work.

In the United States, St. Patrick's Day is viewed as a secular holiday by most, religious and non-religious alike. Unlike in Ireland, it is not a holy day of obligation for the American Catholic Church.

Corned beef & cabbage only half Irish

While cabbage is a staple in many traditionally Irish meals like colcannon and crubeens, the corned beef is not native to the meal.

The Irish generally accompanied the cabbage and potatoes with boiled back bacon, not corned beef, with this meal. It's is speculated that when the Diaspora brought the Irish to this country, they found beef more readily available than pork. And taking a cue from their fellow Jewish immigrants, use corned (salted) beef as a substitute.

The St. Patrick's Day Parade

This is another holiday tradition that started in America and spread throughout the world.

The first St. Patrick's Day parade was held in New York City on March 17, 1762.

The pipe bands that play during these parades also borrow from different cultures, namely Scotland.

Ireland has its own version of pipes, the Uillean pipes, which differ from the Highland pipes made famous throughout Scotland. As everyone knows, you can't play the Uilleann pipes while marching.

Locally, the St. Patrick's Day parade in Pittsburgh has been ongoing since 1862.

But the idea of a holiday parade didn't creep its way into Ireland until 1995. It was in that year when the Irish government began a national campaign to increase tourism and showcase the country to the rest of the world by embracing party-like celebrations to honor its patron saint.

Wearin' of the Green

Everyone knows you're supposed to wear green on March 17 and the consequences for not doing so. But have you ever stopped to ask yourself why?

There are many theories that abound and an extensive search will yield more than a few credible sources and answers.

But one thing is for certain, the wearing of the green, at least in clothing form, is also a uniquely American tradition.

"Wearin' of the Green" actually means to wear either one or a group of three-leaf clovers, or Shamrocks, on either one's hat or the breast of their shirt or coat.

It is believed St. Patrick used the trefoil clover to help teach the trinity to the native pagan population during his missionary work. The three clover leafs attached to a single stalk was used as a tool to teach that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit were 3-in-1, as is believed in the Catholic religion.

In the U.S., this custom was taken to mean wearing green clothing in general and has been followed as such.

Wearing a shamrock has been seen as a symbol of pride and nationalism throughout the Republic of Ireland and at times has been banned.

The "Wearing of the Green" was actually one of many traditions banned in the various Irish Penal Laws enacted by the crown in London on the Irish people. Also included in those penal laws was a designation on which days would be considered holy days of obligation by the crown. Not included in that list was St. Patrick's Day. One found not attending work or going about their daily business on St. Patrick's Day was subject to a fine of up to 20 shillings. If one was unable to pay, there were to be "whipped" in public.

Green is also a color associated with the island itself, hence the name Emerald Isle, another reason that people could wear the color.

Ironically, the color associated with St. Patrick himself is blue, not green, so in wearing the color, its more of a honor to the island and its people than the saint whose name the holiday honors.

Hughes may be reached at



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