|It’s that time of year when I start looking for the color green. Tulip stems push through the dead, brown leaves along the front of my house. On my drive to and from work, I watch for trees to drop their dingy, gray coats and take on a mossy color. I guess it’s appropriate that we explore the contents of our closets in search of the most vibrant greens for this time of year. But I have to wonder where all our green traditions came from – the shamrock, the green beer, the “kiss me, I’m Irish,” the patron saint of Ireland. I did a little digging, not into my tulip beds, but into the pages of history.
Like all history lessons of the 21st century, nothing is certain and nearly all my facts and findings are debatable. I’m glad I’m not in the business of writing history books. May the luck of the Irish or some powerful research skills follow my dear friends who do!
St. Patrick wasn’t Irish. His own writings say he grew up in a town called Bannavem Taburniae, but historians can seem to find the place. He may have been a citizen of Roman Britain. Some early Irish and French sources say his heritage is Jewish, and his family was among those scattered by the Roman Empire in the first century. Other writings claim his birth was in Scotland or South Wales. Legend says his name was Maewyn Succat, but he changed it to Patricius, meaning “father figure.” I like St. Patrick better…it’s easier to spell.
St. Patrick’s Day does not mark the birth of the patron saint of Ireland. March 17 is believed to be the day he died. The Vatican established a feast day to honor him for bringing Christianity to Ireland in 1631, quite a few years after his death. History suggests he was born in the fourth century or early fifth century. The Annals of the Four Masters, a collection of Irish history chronicles say he died in 461 A.D. at the age of 122! Where are all the math teachers when I need them?
According to his writings “Declaration” and “Confession,” our mysterious hero was kidnapped by Irish pirates at age sixteen and worked as a shepherd for six years in Ireland. During that time, he found God who “had mercy on [his] youthful ignorance.” In a dream, the young man was told to go to the coast where he would find a ship to return him to his homeland.
St. Patrick didn’t carry around a four-leaf clover. After studying for the priesthood, Patricius returned to Ireland where he shared his message, building on the work of an earlier missionary named Palladius, and worked to abolish Druid practices. It is said Patricius used a three-leaf clover to explain the Trinity to his Irish converts. The shamrock was assigned to St. Patrick in the 1720s because all Catholic saints have a botanical symbol to call their own.
St. Patrick’s colors were not green. Based on early Irish and Roman flags, he probably identified with the color blue. The wearing of the green occurred in 1641 during the Great Irish Rebellion when displaced Catholic landowners fought against the English (whose color was red) and worked to remove the Protestants (whose color was orange.) So which color should I wear? I have roots to three of those groups.
Where do the leprechauns come in? Folklore says these mythical fairies dressed in green, though they were first described as wearing red. The legends say if you wear green, you become invisible to the leprechauns who love to pinch people. So I’m back to wearing green. Who wants to be pinched by a leprechaun? Warning – if you spend enough time in a kindergarten classroom, even the color green won’t save you.
Many of our St. Patrick’s Day traditions, corned beef and cabbage and parades, came from Irish Americans in the 1700s as a way to honor their heritage. Americans gave the day a festive feel, while Ireland traditionally held March 17 as a holy day. Ireland eventually adopted many of our American practices as a way to cater to tourists.
The sixty-year-old tradition of dying the Chicago River green for St. Patrick’s Day came about by accident. Chicago plumbers used a green dye to identify the source of pollutants. The tradition of drinking green beer was a promotional tactic of the Budweiser company in the 1980s.
I hope you enjoyed learning how much I don’t really know about St. Patrick’s Day. What can I say? Sometimes, it is fun to delve into a topic until total confusion takes over. If you’d like to join the effort to create more confusion about the holiday, check out some of my sources below. Then go grab your brightest green…or orange…blue…red — anything but winter’s gray.
Time – How Green Became Associated With St. Patrick’s Day and All Things Irish
Time – The True History Behind St. Patrick’s Day
Wikipedia – St. Patrick
Britannica – St. Patrick
Irish Royal Academy – St. Patrick’s Confessio
Royal Irish Academy – Annals of the Four Masters