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A History of St. Patrick's Day

March 17 marks the holiday of Saint Patrick's Day, celebrated in America, Europe, and elsewhere. The holiday commemorates the life of Saint Patrick of Ireland, who is remembered for his ministry to the Irish pagans during the fifth century. The Irish have observed this day, which falls during the Christian season of Lent, as a religious holiday for thousands of years. The day is viewed historically as a time for spiritual renewal and offering prayers for missionaries worldwide. Traditionally, Irish families attend church in the morning and celebrate in the afternoon. Lenten prohibitions against the consumption of meat are waived and people often feast on the traditional meal of Irish bacon and cabbage. Observers also wear shamrocks in remembrance of the saint or decorate shillelaghs (wooden walking stick or clubs) with green ribbons. Families also use a shillelagh to engage in a traditional Irish game called "hurling" (or "iomain" in Gaelic). This game is a combination of lacrosse and field hockey.

St. Patrick's Day was first publicly celebrated not in Ireland, but in Boston in the year 1737. In 1762, Irish soldiers serving in the English military marched through New York City for the first St. Patrick's Day parade in history. The music and pageantry allowed the soldiers to reconnect with their Irish roots, as well as fellow Irishmen serving in the English army. Over the next four decades, Irish patriotism among American immigrants flourished, prompting the rise of "Irish Aid" societies, such as the Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick and the Hibernian Society. Each organization hosted annual parades featuring bagpipes and drums. Up until the mid-nineteenth century, most Irish immigrants in America were members of the Protestant middle class. When the Great Potato Famine hit Ireland in 1845, close to a million impoverished, uneducated, Catholic Irish began to pour into America to escape starvation. Despised for their religious beliefs and accents by the American Protestant majority, the immigrants encountered difficulties finding even menial jobs. When Irish Americans in the country's cities took to the streets on St. Patrick's Day to celebrate their heritage, newspapers portrayed them in cartoons as drunk, violent monkeys. However, the Irish soon began to realize that their great numbers endowed them with political power, and began to organize into a voting block known as the "green machine." Suddenly, annual St. Patrick's Day parades became a show of strength for Irish Americans, attended by a slew of political candidates who sought the Irish vote. Since then, Saint Patrick's Day is celebrated as much to remember the struggles and triumphs of Irish immigrants in early America as well as to remember the humble patron saint of Ireland.

The traditional icon of this holiday is the shamrock, which stems from the story of how Patrick used the three-leafed clover to explain the Trinity. Patrick used it to represent how the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit can all exist as separate elements of the same entity. Patrick was well known for sharing the Gospel with the Celtic Druids by drawing upon their love of nature and using symbolism that they could understand in his sermons. He continually remembered the past out of which he was saved, thus exuding a humility and gratitude in his missions: "For I am much Godís debtor, who gave me such great grace that many people were reborn in God through me." The shamrock became a popular emblem worn by the Irish regiments of the Queen's Army in Britain. However, the shamrock later became a symbol of rebellion during the mid-1800s, and Queen Victoria made it illegal to wear a shamrock. In America, the wearing of the shamrock became transformed into the general "wearing of the green," or donning green garments.