Seasonal Holidays: St. Patrick's Day

Figure 1.--One of tghe popular features of St. Patrcks's Dat parades is the children doing Irish step dancing. Here are some of the step dancers preparing for the parade in wadjhington, D,C, during 1992.,\

St. Patrick's Day became the first of the many American ehnic celebrations. Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland, renowned for brining Christianity to the pagan Irish. The Irish were distinctive in several resprcts. They were the first large non-Protestant group to reach merica. the first ethnic group besides the English to come to the United States in large numbers in a few specific years. They also were the first group to arrive in abject poverty. As thus the Irish were a destinctive minority in several large cities for several years. This perhaps explains why St. Patrick's Day thus became the first 'national' day widely celebated in America. At first it was only celebrated by the Irish. Gradually it entered the American mainstream. At first this occurred in areas with large Irish populations. It was the first of what became annual ethnic celebrations. such as Greek and Polish Day, Octoberfest, along with Columbus Day which unlike St. Patrick's Day became a national holiday. It is the most widely recognized of all the ethnic celebrations. This is fitting as about 30 million Americans identify themselves as being Irish. That is 10 times the population of Ireland itself.

The Holiday

Historical background

The person who was to become St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, was born in Wales (about 385 AD). His given name was Maewyn, and he almost didn't get the job of Bishop of Ireland because he lacked the required scholarship. Far from being a saint, until he was 16, he considered himself a pagan. At that age, he was sold into slavery by a group of Irish marauders that raided his village. During his captivity, he became closer to God. He escaped from slavery after 6 years and went to Roman Gaul where he studied in the monastery under St. Germain, bishop of Auxerre for a period of twelve years. During his training he became aware that his calling was to convert the pagans to Christianity. His wishes were to return to Ireland, to convert the pagans that had overrun the country. But his superiors instead appointed St. Palladius. But two years later, Palladius transferred to Scotland. Patrick, having adopted that Christian name earlier, was then appointed as second bishop to Ireland. Patrick was quite successful at winning converts. And this fact upset the Celtic Druids. Patrick was arrested several times, but escaped each time. He traveled throughout Ireland, establishing monasteries across the country. He also set up schools and churches which would aid him in his conversion of the Irish country to Christianity. Patrick's mission in Ireland lasted for 30 years. After that time, Patrick retired to County Down. He died on March 17 (461 AD). That day has been commemorated as St. Patrick's Day ever since.

Irish fokelore

Much Irish folklore surrounds St. Patrick's Day. Not much of it is actually substantiated. Some of this lore includes the belief that Patrick raised people from the dead. He also is said to have given a sermon from a hilltop that drove all the snakes from Ireland. Though originally a Catholic holy day, St. Patrick's Day has evolved into more of a secular holiday.

The Shamrock

One traditional icon of the day is the shamrock. And this stems from a more bona fide Irish tale that tells how Patrick used the three-leafed shamrock to explain the Trinity. He used it in his sermons to represent how the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit could all exist as separate elements of the same entity. His followers adopted the custom of wearing a shamrock on his feast day.

The celebrations

The St. Patrick's Day custom came to America (1737). That was the first year St. Patrick's Day was publicly celebrated in this country, in Boston. St. Patrick's Day became in America one of the most rolicking holidays celebrated in America. The centerpiece of St. Patrick's Day has always been a massice parade with politicans, civic and church leaders, highschool bands, pipe pands, policevand firevman's franternal orders, step dancers, and much more. For too many,however, St. Patrick's Day was an excuse for a druken binge.


St. Patrick's Day never became a national holiday. We do see celebrations of various kinds in schools. This of course was most pronounced in parichial schools at lkeast thise with Irish students and/or teachers, bth nns and secular teachers. We eventually see some attentiin in public schools, especially thise in cities with substantial Irish populations. We are not sure when this began. We do notice a group of boy celebrating St. Patrick's Day in the Utica Free Academy (1887).

St. Patrick's Day Cards

Many St Partick's Day cards have cute little themes of lepercauns and four leaf clovers. But there are some terrible cards. Hallmark has some pretty gross cards out now , about drinking and worse. Irish are shown as pathetic drunks. Idiots who drink all the time. Very sad to see, no other culture is mocked like this by the card companies. I noticed other cultures are treated very respectfully on their religious and other holidays. Marcel Schurman Co has some pretty hateful ones out mocking Irish dancing. Take a look at the Hallmark "shoebox" cards. Things are improving, though, thanks to Riverdance, and the popular interest in Irish culture (e.g., Meryl Streep starring in Dancing at Lunasa), etc. But Irish Americans certainly have a ways to go--I just checked out Hallmark's e-cards, one of which has three cows drinking green beer, swaying and singing "Moo-ra-Loo-ra-Loo-ra, Moo-ra-Loo-ra-Li.." to the tune of "when Irish eyes are smiling." Even the bumper sticker for Milwaukee Irish Fest has a caricature of a leprechaun, wearing a green pilgrim hat over pointy ears, a full red Amish-like beard, smoking a long-stem pipe, and beaming with a wide grin.

Costume Styles

Unlike Scottish celebrations, boys do not normally dress up in kilts for St. Patrick's Day. Many boys participating in pipe bands and Irish dancing, however, do wear their kilts to participate in the parades. Notably the boys commonly wear the kilt pipe band uniforms. Many boys involved in Irish dancing, however, are a little shy about wearing their kilts in the St. Partrick's Day parades. Most of the parade participants are the girl dancers. This seems to b cahnging as dancing costimes have changed as a result of River Dance,


The Irish are one of the most important ethnic groups that have made modern in America. More than 40 million Americans identify as being Irish Americans, more than one out of every 10 Americans. The immigrants, like each successive immigrant group, did not have an easy time of it. But the Irish have succeded, reaching the Presidency and the Supreme Court. Irish Americans from the beginning looked back at their misty, green island. Ethnic frstivals, music and dance are emensly popular. Like Scotland, the kilt is seen as ethnic folk dress and is worn by Irish pipe bands and step dancers.


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Created: June 24, 1999
Last updated: 4:19 PM 3/20/2014