What is Saint Patrick’s Day?
Saint Patrick’s Day, or the Feast of Saint Patrick (Gaeilge: Lá Fhéile Pádraig, “the Day of the Festival of Patrick”), is a festival celebrated on the island of Ireland and amongst the Irish diaspora in the UK, Europe, North America, South America, Australia and New Zealand. It’s a big festival where people join to celebrate all things related with the island of Ireland – its people, religion, culture, art and food. There are many traditions associated with the festival including the wearing of green attire and shamrocks, and symbols such as the pot-of-gold at the end of a rainbow and leprechauns (small mischievous fairies depicted as little bearded men). In Ireland, it is a public holiday and so most people have the day off from work and school. Saint Patrick’s Day is celebrated every year on March 17, which marks the traditional death of Saint Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland.
Who was Saint Patrick?
However, Ireland’s foremost saint was not Irish! St Patrick was born a long time ago, about 385 AD in Roman Britain. He was born into a wealthy family and his grandfather was a priest in the Christian church. At that time, Ireland was a pagan country and Christianity had not yet reached its shores. The pagan Irish celebrated many gods and goddesses and were thought of as barbarians. St Patrick’s life was turned upside down at age of 16, when he was kidnapped by a group of Irish raiders. He was brought to Gaelic Ireland and sold as a slave. It is believed he spent six years working as a shepherd in County Antrim. During this time, he became increasingly religious and later wrote that God told him to flee to the coast and wait for a ship to take him home. Once safely back, St Patrick went on to become a priest and then bishop.
As faith would have it, Ireland was not finished with St Patrick just yet. Back home he had a dream where the Irish were calling him back to tell them about God. He was inspired to return but he didn’t return immediately. It was after his training as a missionary that St Patrick returned to spread the word of God. Nonetheless, it wasn’t exactly plain sailing. He was imprisoned a number of times when his teachings had upset the local chieftains and their priests, the Druids, but he always managed to escape or gain his freedom by giving his captors gifts. He taught the word of God by using a shamrock, which resembles a three-leafed clover, as a symbol to explain the concept of God – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
He spent twenty years travelling the length and breadth of Ireland, converting people to Christianity and establishing monasteries, churches and schools. By time he died, he had left behind an island of Christians and an organised church. Without St Patrick, the island would not have been the beacon of light and learning during the Dark Ages that saw much of the European continent plunge into darkness, disorder and war after the fall of the Roman Empire. From then till now, Ireland has always been known as the “Land of Saints and Scholars”. There are many legends associated with St Patrick. One legend states that he drove all the snakes out of Ireland, however no snakes ever existed on the island. Instead, the snakes represent the pagans he converted to Christianity.
What do people do on Saint Patrick’s Day?
Today, celebrations involve attending religious services, public parades and festivals, Irish traditional music sessions (Céilithe) and the wearing of green clothes and shamrocks. In Dublin they celebrate the Saint Patrick’s Day Festival from March 15th – 19th. And across the country many cities, towns and villages hold their own festivals and parades. The parades usually consist of dancing groups, marching bands and floats. Parades are also held in the major cities of the UK, US, and Canada. One of the most famous being the New York Saint Patrick’s Day parade. Alongside the parades, other celebrations include dying the Chicago river green and many global landmarks such as the Sydney Opera House, Colosseum, Burj Al Arab, and Table Mountain lighting up in green. So what began as a modest religious feast day in 17th century Ireland has evolved into a variety of festivals across the globe celebrating Irish culture.
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