What comes to mind when you think of St. Patrick’s Day?
It’s safe to say that the majority of Americans would think of four-leaf clovers, leprechauns, pots of gold, corned beef and cabbage, and our personal favorite – Shamrock Shakes from McDonald’s :-)
While all these are fine and fun, it’s often forgotten that St. Patrick’s Day is full of Christian history. It is important that we acknowledge the meaning of St. Patrick and the legacy that he left. As a bonus, we’ll also share with you a classic St. Patrick’s Day recipe!
(To find out why you should use recipes as a way of teaching history, check out our blog post, Adding Interest to History with Recipes!)
Who Is St. Patrick?
Believe it or not, St. Patrick was not actually born in Ireland. He was born in Britain! His story begins in what historians believe to be the 4th or 5th century when at the age of 16, Maewyn Succat, who would later become who we know as “St. Patrick,” was captured by Irish raiders and was brought back to Ireland to work as a slave.
According to his famous book, The Confession of Saint Patrick, he wasn’t a believer at first, despite his father being a deacon and his grandfather a priest. During his six long years of captivity, he grew in his spiritual development while working as a herdsman. He strengthened his relationship with God through prayer, which eventually led him to accept Christianity – the only hope he found during his years of enslavement.
It wasn’t until he dreamt that a ship was docked and waiting for him to board that he fled from his master. Just as he had imagined, he found a boat that was headed to his homeland. During the trip back home, he nearly starved to death and was even recaptured for a short amount of time.
Upon returning to Britain, he recounts in his book that he had another dream where a man named Victoricus delivered him a letter labeled “The Voice of the Irish.” While reading the letter, he heard Irishmen desperately cry out, “We beg you, holy youth, that you shall come and shall walk again among us.”
He awoke and was moved by the dream, but didn’t respond to his calling right away because he felt as if he lacked Christian education. It’s said that he spent 12 years studying and training at a monastery in France before returning to Ireland. With the blessing of a Pope, he finally gave in to his destiny and changed his name to Patricius, or Patrick.
Once arriving in Ireland, Patrick traveled all across the country, baptizing and preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ. During his travels, he was constantly threatened to be martyred and even suffered several periods of imprisonment. However, it’s said that Patrick always ended up escaping the situations and gaining his freedom by gifting his captors with presents.
Patrick went on to be considered the first Christian missionary and Apostle of Ireland, although there was a man named Palladius who went before him without much success. By the time he died on what people believe to be March 17th, he had dramatically changed the hearts and lives of those on the island and even left behind several schools, monasteries, and churches.
From there on, Christian Irish men and women vowed to remember his legacy every March 17th by making it a holy day called St. Patrick’s Day.
Myths About St. Patrick
The Banishing of Snakes in Ireland
By the 7th century, St. Patrick was a legendary figure. As time went on, many myths were told about him, including the most popular tale being that he drove out all of the snakes in Ireland. However, Nigel Monaghan at the National Museum of Ireland confirmed after years of extensively studying Ireland fossils that snakes never existed in Ireland, to begin with. It’s been concluded that snakes were likely a metaphor representing the druids in Ireland during Patrick’s life.
The Use of a Shamrock to Teach the Holy Trinity
Another legend about St. Patrick is that he was famous for teaching the Holy Trinity through a shamrock – each leaf representing the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – three persons in one God. There’s no evidence to deem this untrue, as many catholic churches in Ireland depict St. Patrick holding a cross in one hand and a shamrock in the other. Today, the shamrock is used as Ireland’s national flower and represents the holiday of St. Patrick.
When Did St. Patrick’s Day Start in America?
St. Patrick’s Day first began in America in 1845 when Irish men and women came to the United States after Ireland’s tragic Potato Famine. Clinging to their Irish identity and memories, Irish-Americans celebrated their heritage with one another every St. Patrick’s Day.
According to national historian Mike McCormack, the Irish immigrants were not favored by Americans at first. It wasn’t until the Civil War that Americans’ attitudes toward the Irish began to soften. “They went out as second-class citizens but came back as heroes,” McCormack said.
After that, Americans began to celebrate with the Irish on St. Patrick’s Day. Today, there are more people in America with Irish ancestry than any other country (that’s more than seven times the population of Ireland!) ...our family being among them!
21st-Century St. Patrick’s Day History
The first parade recorded on St. Patrick’s Day was in Boston (1737) and later in New York City (1762). Chicago joined the celebration in 1962 by coloring its river green every St. Patrick’s Day. However, oddly enough, the color originally associated with St. Patrick’s Day wasn’t green, but blue! The color changed to green during the Irish Rebellion of 1798 when the clover became Ireland’s national emblem.
St. Patrick’s Day is now celebrated in more countries than any other national holiday. Apart from Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated in the UK, U.S., Canada, Brazil, Argentina, Australia, and New Zealand. The holiday is now considered a secular celebration in America, with people wearing the color green, drinking green beer, and eating corned beef and cabbage.
The classic corned beef and cabbage meal served on St. Patrick’s Day was first introduced by Irish-Americans. Although ham and cabbage were commonly eaten in Ireland, corned beef was a cheaper substitute, which was easily accessible.
How Is St. Patrick’s Day History Celebrated in Ireland?
Meanwhile, across the pond, St. Patrick’s Day was always considered a holy day in Ireland where people would attend church in the morning and partake in a feast in the afternoon in honor of St. Patrick.
Unlike in America, there were no parades and certainly no drinking as all pubs were traditionally closed. It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that the Irish saw American celebrations on TV and decided to partake. As a result, this promoted tourism and boosted its economy. Today, their St. Patrick’s Day Festival in Dublin now attracts over one million people each year.
St. Patrick’s Day Irish Stew Recipe
Now that you know much more about the origins of St. Patrick's Day, we’ve got a special recipe that you and your family can make! This hearty Irish Stew is the perfect St. Patty’s Day meal, filled with meat, potatoes, carrots, and spices. Plus, it’s easy to make in the crockpot and can be made gluten-free by switching the regular flour to gluten-free flour.
- 2 pounds chuck roast cut into 1-inch cubes
- 1/4 cup flour
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon pepper
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 small onion, chopped
- 1/2 cup beef broth
- 1 bay leaf
- 2 cups baby carrots
- 4 medium unpeeled potatoes, cubed into 1-inch chunks
- Place the meat, flour, salt, and pepper in a zip-lock bag and shake to coat.
- Heat the olive oil in a frying pan.
- Brown the meat on all sides and transfer to a crockpot.
- Add the onion to the pan and sauté until translucent.
- Transfer the onions to the crockpot and add the bay leaf, broth, carrots, and potatoes.
- Cook on low for 8 hours or until vegetables can be easily pierced with a fork.
- Season with additional salt and pepper if desired.
Tell Others About the History Behind St. Patrick’s Day
It’s surprising, but not many people who celebrate this holiday in America know about the history behind St. Patrick’s Day. We encourage you to teach your children, family, and friends about St. Patrick and his courageous efforts to spread Christianity across an entire island of unbelievers!
For more information and recipes on St. Patrick’s Day, check out our History of Holidays Activity Study. This study is an excellent way for kids to take a break from their regular studies and learn about upcoming holidays – it includes over 30 projects, games, recipes, links, and the history of over a dozen American holidays! Also, if you’re looking for more studies that revolve around the Middle Ages, be sure to look into our Project Passport: The Middle Ages.