Saint Patrick’s Day

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Today is, in the Catholic tradition, the feast day of Saint Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland. It is celebrated on the anniversary of his death in the year 461, every March 17th. The day was first declared a Catholic feast day during the 17th century.

Today is a national holiday in Ireland, but is widely celebrated throughout the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, and Canada. It is also a public holiday on the island of Montserrat, in the Caribbean, which was founded by Irish refugees. Like many holidays that were rooted in religious tradition, St. Patrick’s Day is no longer observed as a holy day by most of the people who celebrate it. It has come to be associated with a variety of symbols which are primarily derived from Celtic tradition. For further thoughts on some of this, do be sure to check out The Wearing of the Green, posted here on the Buffet just yesterday. I’ve endeavoured to record some small part of the history of St. Patrick himself and some aspects of the holiday that bears his name.

Saint Patrick was born to the name of Maewyn in or around the year 385. He spent the first sixteen years of his life, most likely in some part of Roman Britain, as a pagan. When he was sixteen, his village was raided by Irish marauders, and Maewyn was captured and sold into slavery. He seems to have found this experience to have inspired him to find a new faith, and he converted to Christianity while he was in captivity.

He escaped six years later and studied in a monastary in Gaul. Eventually, he was able to pursue his goal of returning to Ireland to convert others to Christianity, by now having adopted the Christian name of Patrick, and was appointed the second bishop of Ireland. He was quite successful in this endeavour, though it earned him the enmity of the local Celtic Druids. He was arrested repeatedly, though he managed to escape captivity each time. He spent thirty years traveling around Ireland, setting up monasteries, schools, and churches in his efforts at conversion. He eventually returned to his home county in Cory and died in 461 at the age of 76.

One of the most common symbols displayed during modern celebrations of the day is the shamrock. Although the more rare four-leafed variety is most often displayed today, St. Patrick himself favored the three-leafed variety. He used it as a means of explaining the Trinity to those he was attempting to convert, demonstrating how something could be three separate elements, but still part of the same whole. In modern times, the four-leafed clover is used as a symbol of luck.

Green is a color very strongly tied to the holiday, with everything from glasses of beer to large rivers being died green for the celebration. This has been a color long represented in Celtic tradition, though many say that in the celebration of his feast day, the color is in recognition of Saint Patrick driving all of the snakes out of Ireland. Of course, Ireland has never had any native species of snake, making this a rather overly simplistic task for a Saint to accomplish. Most view the story as a metaphor for his work in converting pagans to Christianity, with the snake being a common symbol in Christian tradition for opposing forces.

 In response to the question posed in the earlier post (linked above), I would also like to confirm that as I write this, I am, in fact, wearing a very bright green shirt.


2 Responses to Saint Patrick’s Day

  1. Sonetka says:

    Fascinating stuff. I’d love to know if the snake story was put about deliberately as an anti-pagan thing or just arose spontaneously (“Hey, why do suppose there aren’t any snakes around here?” “Ah, St. Patrick probably got rid of them. He could do everything else, why not that?”) and happened to fit a fairly appropriate symbolism. I once knew an Old Believer Russian girl whose parents refused to have any images of snakes in the house, because a snake brought about the Fall of Man; I haven’t heard of others being so rigorous, though. I wonder, though – how many cultures are there (Christian or non-) who *like* snakes?

  2. Snakes are creatures of the earth, and prone to secrets. The Greek sun-god Apollo defeated the eldar Titan Python, and her symbolic children were to be guides to his priestesses. His son, Asclepius, was one of the first doctors, and bore a staff with a snake twined around it.

    Anyone want to discuss the Egyptian relationship with snakes?

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