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St. Patrick’s Day – A Bit of History and Tradition

Modern St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, at least in the United States, are likely be to characterized by commercial lucky charms and green beer—all of which has very little to do with the historical figure of the saint.

Who was St. Patrick?

St. Patrick was born in Roman Britain in the late 4th century, he was kidnapped at the age of 16 and taken to Ireland as a slave. He escaped but returned about 432 to convert the Irish to Christianity. By the time of his death on March 17, 461, he had established monasteries, churches, and schools.  Many people don't realize that he authored two books, the “Confessio,” a spiritual autobiography, and his “Epistola,” which denounced the British mistreatment of Irish Christians.

St. Patrick is probably best known for driving the snakes from Ireland. And it's true there are no snakes on the island. However, there most likely never were because Ireland split off from the continent at the end of the ice age. Snakes in religion usually represent evil or pagan practices and since St. Patrick converted so many to Christianity maybe it's a symbolic “driving the snakes out” of Ireland he was credited for.

St. Patrick's Day

St. Patrick’s Day didn’t become an official Irish public holiday until 1903 with the introduction of the Bank Holiday (Ireland) Act 1903. This act was introduced by Irish Member of Parliament James O’Mara, who was also responsible for the law that required the closing of pubs on March 17.

In Ireland, the typical St. Patrick's Day celebration before the '70s and the lifting of the ban on the sale of alcohol were very different from the party atmosphere associated with the day now. As St. Patrick’s Day falls in the Christian season of Lent, a mass was attended in the morning with the afternoon set aside for celebrations. If it fell on a Friday, the Lenten prohibition against meat was lifted for the day. Families sang and danced and celebrated, which represented a break during the normally somber time of Lent.

Before the drinking ban was repealed, there was only one place in Ireland where one could buy a drink on March 17: The Royal Dublin Dog Show. The Dog Show would see a wide attendance, with not just dog lovers attending but also writers and politicians and anybody else who wanted to do more than eat chocolate and sweets on this one cheat day during Lent.

Spreading through the world

As the Irish spread from the island to the rest of the world they took St. Patrick's day with them and it's now an international holiday.

Although blue was the color traditionally associated with St. Patrick, green is now commonly connected with the day. It wasn’t until 1798, the year of the Irish Rebellion, that the color green became officially associated with the day, Casey says. Up until the rebellion, the color associated with St. Patrick was blue, as it was featured both in the royal court and on ancient Irish flags. But as the British wore red, the Irish chose to wear green, and they sang the song “The Wearing of the Green” during the rebellion, cementing the color’s relevance in Irish history.

Now St. Patrick's day means wearing green, finding the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, celebrating being Irish, and luck. Cities with large numbers of Irish immigrants, who often wielded political power, staged the most extensive celebrations, which included elaborate parades. Boston held its first St. Patrick’s Day parade in 1737, followed by New York City in 1762. Since 1962 Chicago has colored its river green to mark the holiday.

In my hometown

In Cedar Rapids, my hometown, the first parade was in 1976, when I was two years old, and started after a local radio personality started receiving calls about the possibility of a parade. It lasted four minutes and was a block and a half long. It was dubbed “The First and Last, One of a Kind, Ecumenical, St. Patrick’s Day Parade.” The following year, 1977, saw the parade lasting 10 minutes.

Unfortunately, the radio personality moved away and locals were concerned the parade would end there. A local group of Irish folk gathered at a local Irish bar (Mahoney's) to discuss how to continue the new tradition. One night in 1977, on a cocktail napkin, the SaPaDaPaSo organization was born. The name SaPaDaPaSo was coined by taking the first two letters of the group's new name, Saint Patrick's Day Parade Society.

SaPaDaPaSo has sponsored our annual St. Patrick's Day parade every year since 1977, rain or shine. They also put on one heck of an Irish Hooley! Just what is a hooley? A hooley is day of festivities centered around dancing, singing, and general merriment in the traditional Irish fashion. Some say the very soul of Ireland is expressed most perfectly is the joyous exuberance of her traditional dances. Others pine for the melodies and spring of the unmistakable music. But still more find that Irish identity is found intertwined in folk stories, which will be told for all to enjoy.

Every year, society members also nominate an ‘Irish Colleen'. She is a young girl of Irish descent who is selected by a panel of judges, based upon a questionnaire and submitted photo. She serves as a hostess at the Irish Hooley, rides in a convertible during the parade, and helps distribute awards at the after-parade celebration.

While 2020 brought a change in how we live, it was also the first and only year the SaPaDaPaSo parade was cancelled. Accommodations for social distancing and safety of parade goers have been made this year and it will continue on.

What does your city, county or state do for St. Patrick's Day? Will you be toasting a green beer or dining on corned beef and cabbage this year?

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