Green Big Deal: Manhattan prepares for St. Patrick’s Day parade

But do you know your St. Paddy's history?

Over 150,000 marchers and two million spectators are expected to line Fifth Avenue Saturday for New York City’s St. Patrick’s Day parade. It’s an annual spectacle packed with joyous, noisy and colorful traditions. Note that the parade takes place the day before Sunday’s St. Patrick’s Day itself. (It’s the Sabbath, after all.)  Aside from the festivities, the parade’s a lot more fun if you have brushed up on your Irish history.

We love St. Patrick’s Day because no matter where you’re from or what your ethnic origins are, we’re all Irish on March 17. Many Americans grow up hearing fantastical stories about Saint Patrick, the primary patron saint of Ireland. If there’s a day named after him, it all has to be true, right? Well, yes and no. We think it’s time to sort through the blarney for the truth. So let’s find out why we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.

The real Saint Patrick

Historians believe Saint Patrick was originally named Maewyn Succat when he was born in Roman-occupied Britain in 387 AD.  What’s even more amazing is that his parents Calpurnias and Conchessa were Roman officials. Young Maewyn’s privileged life would change dramatically at the age of 16.

A group of Irish pagans, said to be pirates, kidnapped the teenager and took him to Ireland where he worked as a slave for six years. Despite his enslavement, there was something about Ireland and its customs that endeared him to the country. Eventually Maewyn escaped to a monastery in Gaul, now modern-day France.

People playing bagpipes at St Patrick's Day parade
Musicians playing bagpipes at St Patrick’s Day parade in London. (Photo: Sandor Szmutko) 

During his time with the monks, Maewyn converted to Christianity which was spreading throughout Europe. He was ordained as Patrick in 432 AD and returned to Ireland as a priest. Later, Pope Celestine I promoted Patrick to bishop and ultimately assigned him as an apostle — what we might think of today as an ambassador between Ireland and the Pope.

But the early druids defied Christianity as a young upstart religion since pagans had been practicing their rituals for many centuries before the birth of Christ. As Patrick roamed Ireland seeking converts and destroying pagan idols and temples, he ran into lots of resistance toward Christianity.

Legend has it that Patrick used the three-leaf clover, now a symbol of St. Patrick’s Day, as a way to explain to the pagans the Holy Trinity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Although Ireland’s king refused to convert, many of his family members gradually came to accept Christianity. Eventually, the old pagan ways died out and the Roman Catholic Church became a dominant force in Ireland. By 444 AD, Patrick was instrumental in the very first cathedral of Ireland being constructed in the city of Armagh.

Saint Patrick was not technically a saint

So now it’s time to answer that question about how the bishop, Patrick, transformed into Saint Patrick. In Christian lore, when you died for your faith (usually in some hideous way), you were recognized as a saint by the Catholic Church. But in Saint Patrick’s case, he did not die a martyr — and he was never canonized by a pope — primarily because in the first millennium of the Catholic Church, formal canonization was not yet created. In fact, Patrick died of natural causes in Northern Ireland sometime around 493 AD. So, one could question whether or not Patrick was a “legitimate saint.” But when you consider how he singlehandedly converted an entire country to Christianity, it seems reasonable that he should get some kind of recognition for his efforts, right?

St. Patrick’s Day comes to America

The answer is really very simple. Saint Patrick’s story arrived in America with Irish immigrants. During the Revolutionary War, Irish-born soldiers celebrated St. Patrick’s Day with parades as a source of Irish pride. With Massachusetts being one of the original 13 colonies, many of the Irish who came to the U.S. ended up in Boston, the site of the very first St. Patrick’s Day parade in 1737.

The St. Patrick's Day tradition of dying the river green in Chicago
The St. Patrick’s Day tradition of dying the river green brings out large crowds in Chicago. (Photo: Dean Smith)

Being a young country, no matter what traditions come over, we tend to “Americanize” them. For instance, on St. Patrick’s Day, American custom dictates a meal of corned beef and cabbage.

This tradition started with the poverty of many of the Irish immigrants who lived in the cities. Life was tough and food was scarce.

But on St. Patrick’s Day, they scraped money together to create a delicious meal. Sitting down to a meal of corned beef and cabbage was a luxury expense but it gave families and friends a chance to be together and honor their heritage. This is a tradition still followed today.

In 1962, the Chicago River was dyed green for St. Patrick’s Day. That custom has been adopted all over the country, most notably in Savannah, Georgia, where many of the fountains in the parks throughout the city flow with dyed green water.