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St. Patrick, Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day. Simple, right? The man wasn’t even Irish! He was actually born in Britain around the turn of the 4th century. At 16 years old, Irish raiders captured him in the midst of an attack on his family’s estate. The raiders then took him to Ireland and held him captive for six years. After escaping, he went back to England for religious training and was sent back to Ireland many years later as a missionary. St. Patrick was actually born Maewyn Succat, according to legend; he changed his name to Patricius, or Patrick, which derives from the Latin term for “father figure,” when he became a priest.
It’s supposed to give you “the gift of gab,” but it can also give you a stiff neck — and countless germs. The Blarney Stone is a must-see tourist destination in Blarney Castle, near Cork, Ireland, and 400,000 visitors line up every year to kiss it in hopes of boosting their eloquence. But it isn’t so easy to smooch the stone — you must sit on a ledge while someone holds down your legs, then bend over backward while holding iron rails until your face is level with the stone. Congrats, you’ve now kissed a surface similarly kissed by hundreds of thousands of others. Hopefully the gift of gab is worth the bacteria.
The legend of St. Patrick says that he is celebrated for driving all the snakes out of Ireland, which to this day, is a snake-free zone. The only problem with this legend is that biologists now believe there were never snakes in Ireland. Based on its geographical location and the temperature of the ocean surrounding it, snakes had no way of ever migrating to the island. Most likely, the legend of the snakes is a metaphor for St. Patrick driving paganism out of Ireland by converting so many people to Christianity.
St. Patrick died more than 1,500 years ago on March 17. It’s now the saint’s designated feast day. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, we have theologian Luke Wadding to thank for the celebration’s permanence: “Each year Wadding kept the Feast of St. Patrick with great solemnity, and it is due to his influence … that the festival of Ireland’s Apostle was inserted on 17 March in the calendar of the Universal Church.” While “great solemnity” has clearly not persisted, the date has held firm.
Saint Patrick’s color was blue, not green, say historians. The hue — St. Patrick’s blue, a lighter shade — can still be seen on ancient Irish flags and was used on armbands and flags by members of the Irish Citizen Army, whose 1916 Easter Rising attempted to end British rule. But the use of green on St. Patrick’s Day began during the 1798 Irish Rebellion, when the clover became a symbol of nationalism and the “wearing of the green” on lapels became regular practice. The green soon spread to uniforms as well. That evolution, combined with the idea of Ireland’s lush green fields, eventually made blue a thing of the past.
Ireland has been officially celebrating St. Patrick’s Day since 1903, when Irish politician James O’Mara introduced a bill in Westminster that made it an official public holiday back in his homeland. But not until the 1960s could you find revellers celebrating at a bar. Ireland is heavily Catholic, and St. Patrick’s Day falls during Lent, which means that although celebratory feasts and drinks were allowed, an all-night party seemed a little too sinful. Fearing excessive drinking, Ireland introduced a law that forced all pubs to close on March 17. Luckily for beermakers, the law was repealed in 1961. The Irish are now free to get as drunk as the Americans who use the day to get drunk celebrating the Irish.
The first St. Patrick’s Day parade wasn’t held in Ireland but in the U.S. Well, technically “the colonies.” In 1762, Irish soldiers serving in the English army celebrated the holiday by marching through the streets of New York City. By 1848, the parade was an official city event and today nearly 3 million people line New York City’s streets to watch the five-hour-long, 150,000-participant procession.
Chicago invented its own St. Patrick’s Day tradition: it dyes the Chicago River green. In 1962 sanitation workers realized that the green vegetable dye they used to check for illegally dumped sewage could double as a St. Patrick’s Day decoration. The city has been greenifying its waterways ever since. Unfortunately, the color lasts only for a few hours.
Apparently, they’re really popular. Hallmark started producing the green-themed cards back in the early 1920s. They now offer more than 100 cards dedicated to the holiday. There’s the one of a Dalmatian covered in four-leaf clover instead of black spots. It reads, “On St. Patrick’s Day, everybody’s Irish.” There’s also an e-card with a dancing mug of green beer set to Men Without Hats’ “Safety Dance.” Hallmark says 12 million Americans exchange St. Patrick’s Day cards each year. The company’s sales are highest in the Northeast, with New York City topping the list.
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