"How did St. Patrick's Day start?” is a question asked by many people. It is an Irish and Irish-American holiday. Children learn quickly to wear something green that day. Parades, parties and other events are held in major cities around the world celebrate. But where did it all begin?
The Library of Congress explains that St. Patrick's Day happens every March 17th to honor the Feast Day of St. Patrick. The Feast Day commemorates St. Patrick's death. Records show his death occurred on March 17, 492. St. Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland. He is one of the main people responsible for Ireland's conversion from Paganism to Christianity. His name is the most recognized name in connection with Irish religion and culture. He is credited with explaining the Holy Trinity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost by using a shamrock. He showed that the shamrock's leaves are separate parts but still connected. He pointed out that the Trinity is the same, separate but connected. This eventually led to the idea of wearing green on his day. It is to show honor for the shamrock and, by extension, honor for the Trinity.
In the beginning, the Irish celebrated St. Patrick's Feast Day with religious ceremonies and elaborate dinners. Eventually, the Irish began to spread out into other countries and areas for many of the same reasons of other nationalities, like the British and Spanish. They first went to escape religious persecution and explore new lands. Many Irish came to America during the potato famine in the 1600's to keep from starving to death. Everywhere the Irish traveled, they took their honor of St. Patrick and the celebrations of his Feast Day with them.
In their new homes, the Irish were often discriminated against. Back in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Catholics were distrusted and hated for their rigid ways and the differences between their religion and other religions that were already in place. Most people felt that the absolute worst were the Irish Catholics. Because of this attitude, the Irish maintained and expanded on their St. Patrick's Day celebrations. This was done to show people, in particular the ones who hated them so much and did everything possible to make the Irish appear to be less than human, that they were just as human as any other race.
The celebrations became a way to show the world that the Irish were a proud race, cultured and unafraid of showing they held great faith in their religious beliefs. The Ancient Order of Hibernians in America, or AOH, describe how the passion of an Irishman for his heritage increases the further away he gets from his homeland. This is pointed to as a way to explain how the tradition of parading in St. Patrick's honor could start thousands of miles away from that homeland. The tradition of the parade began here in America with the Irish soldiers serving in the British army during the late eighteenth century. The story goes that a group of local Irish soldiers “marched in military manner” to a celebration dinner they had been invited to. Mention in historical documents from 1766 have been found that describe a formal march like that where fifes and drums were used.
The AOH points out that George Washington honored the many Irish soldiers marching into the field with him and assisting to create the new nation of the United States. He observed the feast for St. Patrick by making March 17th's password of the day "St. Patrick". All of these things joined together to make celebrating St. Patrick's Day one of the first formal traditions for this emerging new nation.
Over the many years since, the military marches developed into today's elaborate parades. The dinners and banquets evolved into parties. The religious ceremonies and memorial masses grew to include other cultural events. It all adds up together to be a celebration of not only Irish heritage, but of who the Irish are and where the Irish came from. The celebrations extend worldwide today.
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