Christian Traditions 017: St. Patrick’s Day

Von Trapp Follow-Along: Maria makes no mention of this event.


St. Patrick’s Day commemorates the arrival of Christianity in Ireland, the death of the patron saint of Ireland, and the heritage and culture of the Irish.


Green. Green has been associated with Ireland since at least the 1640s when the Irish Catholic Confederation used the green harp flag (pictured at left), and it has been associated with St. Patrick’s Day since at least the 1680s. Interestingly, however, when the Order of St. Patrick was founded in 1783, it selected blue as its color.


The Shamrock. Patrick is said in tradition that first appeared in writing in 1726 AD (though the story itself may be older) to have used the three-leaf clover (the shamrock) to explain the Holy Trinity to the pagan Irish. Irish pagan tradition, wherein three was a significant number and there were many triple deities, helped St. Patrick’s evangelistic efforts. Like the color green, shamrocks have been associated with St. Patrick’s Day since at least the 1680s. (Note that the four-leaf clover is NOT associated with St. Patrick—it’s the three-leaf clover, as described above.)

17 March 2015WHEN IS IT?

St. Patrick’s Day is traditionally held on 17 March in both secular and religious functions. However, on the liturgical calendar, any saint’s day that falls during certain feasts and solemnities must be moved to another day so as not to overshadow or undermine the meaning of the greater feast. Because St. Patrick’s Day is on 17 March, it may occasionally fall during Holy Week (the final week before Easter) and hence must be moved. Most recently, this occurred in 1940 (where it was observed 3 April due to its coinciding with Palm Sunday, one week before Easter Sunday) and again in 2008 (where it was officially observed 14 March due to its coincidence with Holy Monday). The next year St. Patrick’s Day will fall within Holy Week is 2160, where it will again fall on Holy Monday.

saint patrickWHAT IS IT?

St. Patrick’s Day commemorates the death of the patron saint of Ireland. Saint Patrick (c. 385-461 AD) is the patron saint of Ireland. Saint Patrick’s Day was made an official feast day in the Catholic Church in the early 1600s.

Most of what we know about St. Patrick comes from the Declaration and the Letter to the soldiers of Coroticus, both accepted as having been authored by Patrick himself. He is believed to have been born in Roman Britain circa 385 AD into a wealthy Romano-British family with a deacon father and a priest grandfather. At the age of 16, he was allegedly kidnapped by Irish raiders and taken as a slave to Gaelic Ireland, where he spent six years working as a shepherd. God then told Patrick to flee to the coast, where a ship would be waiting to take him home; after coming home, Patrick went on to become a priest. He then returned to Ireland circa 432 AD, where he spent many years evangelizing in northern Ireland and converted over 100,000 pagan Irish to Christianity while planting over 300 churches. (However, it’s possible some of his alleged actions were actually performed by Palladius, who was also known as “Patrick” and who arrived in Ireland in 431 AD.) According to tradition, he died 17 March circa 460 or 493 AD and was buried at Downpatrick. After his death, his corpse and other objects from his tomb became the foci of various battles and struggles. (See Footnote 1 about the snakes in the painting of Saint Patrick.)

Although St. Patrick’s Day was celebrated by the Irish as early as the 800s-900s AD, it was only finally placed on the liturgical calendar in the early 1600s. It became an official public holiday in Ireland in 1903. Based on my limited reading, it seems most countries adopted St. Patrick’s Day under the influence of Irish living there (similarly to how Mardi Gras was adopted in Louisiana due to the influence of French immigrants there), and many of these celebrations had their start quite long ago, as in the example of Montreal, Canada’s annual parade, which began in 1824, while St. Patrick’s Day commemoration has been held there since at least 1759. In Japan, the first St. Patrick’s Day parade was held in 1992 and some events related to St. Patrick’s Day spread across almost the whole month of March!

This day is commemorated with public parades, festivals, ceilithe (Gaelic gatherings), the wearing of green or shamrocks, attendance of church services, and the lifting of Lenten restrictions on eating and alcohol—hence the association of alcohol consumption with the holiday. In fact, similarly to Shrove Tuesday (more popularly known in the U.S. by its French name, “Mardi Gras”), the festivities of St. Patrick’s Day have morphed into a very unchristian celebration wherein “They’re not so much honoring a saint as they are a reflection of embarrassing displays of drunkenness and increasing amounts of commercialism.” (Source.) Furthermore, due to its association with rampant drunkenness and related crime, a law was passed in Ireland in 1903 that required pubs and bars to be closed on 17 March every year, but this was repealed in 1961. St. Patrick’s Day Crosses, which became popular during the World War I era, are also a common tradition on this day, though their origin is uncertain.


St. Patrick’s Day always falls during Lent. On this day, most of the traditional practices involve the lifting of Lenten restrictions.

  • Fashion (Traditional). Wear green on this day, whether a green outfit or green accessories.
  • Celebrate (Traditional). During Lent, festivals are prohibited. However, on this day, they are permitted. Host or attend a party, parade, or other festival.
  • Drinks (Traditional). One of the prohibitions during Lent that is permitted on St. Patrick’s Day is alcohol. If you are so inclined, go to a good pub nearby and drink an Irish alcoholic beverage. Non-alcoholic beverages commonly drunk in Ireland include virgin lemonades of all shades. Consider drinking some green lemonade!
  • Food (Traditional). On this day, you may take a break from your Lenten fast. Although there are no foods specifically associated with St. Patrick’s Day, you may consider eating foods that are traditional to Ireland. Some options include:
    • Breads & Desserts: barmbrack, blaa, goody, soda bread, wheaten bread, potato bread, or veda bread
    • Potato Dishes: boxty (potato pancake), champ (mashed potato, scallions, butter, and milk), colcannon (mashed potatoes with either cabbage or kale), or shepherd’s pie or cottage pie (mashed potato, minced lamb/beef, and vegetables)
    • Pork Dishes: bacon and cabbage, black pudding (made from pigs’ blood), coddle (pork sausage, bacon, and potato), crubeens (pigs’ feet), or skirts and kidneys (pork stew)
    • Others: oatmeal, Irish stew (lamb and mutton), drisheen (a black pudding made from mixed animals’ blood), or Irish breakfast (which may include bacon, pork sausages, fried eggs, white pudding, black pudding, toast, fried tomato, sautéed field mushrooms, baked beans, hash browns, liver, and/or brown soda bread)


Another obvious one… we will create a shamrock.

  • Knitting Patterns. Choose the one you like best from the following.
    • “Mitered Leaf Shamrocks” by Vickie Howell (here) (the small version is 2.5 inches, so just the right size)
    • “Cloverly” by Laura Brown (here) (these are about 3 inches each, so just the right size)
  • Crochet Patterns. Choose the one you like best from the following.
    • “One Piece Crochet Shamrock” by Jan Baxter (here) (this one measures about 3” x 2.5”, so it’s the perfect size)
    • “Gotta be Green” by Ginny Blankenship (here) (this one measures approximately 2 inches across; the length is not listed but is greater than the width, so it’s probably the appropriate size)
    • “Shamrock” by Elizabeth Woodward (here) (this one is about 3.5 x 3.5 inches, so a little too big, but it might be the proper size if you used smaller yarn and a smaller hook)
    • “Shamrock and Clover Applique” by Patricia Eggen (here) (This one is about 1.5 inches, so about half the largest size I’m recommending for the ornaments. Also note that there are both three-leaf and four-leaf options; recall that the four-leaf clover is NOT a St. Patrick’s Day tradition since legend tells that St. Patrick used the three-leaf clover to explain the concept of the Holy Trinity to the pagan Irish, so I strongly recommend creating the three-leaf clover.)





Footnote 1: Saint Patrick and the Snakes. You may have noticed that in the image of Saint Patrick, he is pointing at a bunch of snakes. In most images I found of him, he’s doing the same thing. This is due to a myth of him banishing snakes from Ireland. Apparently, no species of snakes are native to Ireland (scientists believe snakes have never been present in post-glacial Ireland), and a legend arose to explain their absence. The legend states that Patrick was undertaking a 40-day fast on top of a hill when he was attacked by a bunch of snakes. St. Patrick responded by banishing them and chasing them into the sea, after which snakes were absent from Ireland. However, snakes are also associated with the pagan Irish Gaelic Druids, and it has been suggested that this legend is more of a symbolic story of Saint Patrick’s core mission in Ireland.


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