St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated in the United States in many ways, including as a generic excuse to get drunk and party. But St. Patrick’s Day is an important holiday for Irish Americans, with a rich history and a lot of symbolism behind popular traditions. Rather than celebrate as a pointless binge, or a green-tinted frat party, do it the proper Irish-American way: with good beer, good food, and an appreciation for the meaning behind the holiday. Celebrations of this Saint’s day are littered with misconceptions and myths, but here is a crash course in St. Patrick’s Day the best way.
St. Patrick’s Day is the feast day of Saint Patrick, the patron Saint of Ireland. It’s often mentioned that St. Patrick’s Day is more an American holiday than an Irish one, and in some ways this is true, but not for the reasons you may think (exaggerated for the sake of a drunk party). In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Irish people fled their home country in droves, and in very many cases they had no choice: they were pushed from Ireland by famine, war, and extreme poverty. Upon arriving in the U.S., they were greeted by unwelcoming locals who considered the Irish dirty and diseased and often restricted them from applying to jobs. St. Patrick’s Day became a day for Irish Americans to celebrate their heritage in a generally unwelcoming environment, and was observed by many Irish American organizations in major U.S. cities.
As for the Saint Patrick himself, he wasn’t even Irish: he was brought to Ireland from Britain as a slave, and later returned as a missionary. And that thing about driving out the snakes? Well, there were never really any snakes in Ireland to begin with, and some authors suggest this is more a metaphor to symbolize driving paganism out of the country.
Wearing the Green
The term “wearing the green” actually comes from the practice of literally wearing shamrocks on one’s lapel to celebrate the holiday. Shamrocks, according to legend, were used by St. Patrick on his missions to spread Catholicism to illustrate the nature of the Catholic Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, three spirits in one. Now, wearing the color green is symbolic of the tradition of wearing the literal green, or greenery, in your jacket. And note that a four-leaf clover is not a shamrock. They may be lucky, but they have little to nothing to do with St. Patrick’s Day.
Drinking and Eating
Irish food is hearty fare. Generally, corned beef and cabbage are served, but this dish is not actually traditionally Irish: in Ireland, pork would have been served. Irish Americans found that pork was much more expensive in their new country, and began to substitute beef. Cabbage was also more cost-effective than potatoes, which would have been the preferred vegetable. Corned beef, cabbage, boiled potatoes, Irish soda bread and beef stew are all excellent choices for a St. Patrick’s Day meal. Skip the green beer: it’ll dye your mouth, and it’s not something you’d find in any proper Irish pub, and remember an ‘Irish Car Bomb’ is actually a very offensive name for a drink and not an appropriate thing to order on any day.
Talking the Talk
Ever heard a little cartoon leprechaun greet someone with “Top of the morning to ye!”? Well, it may be goofy, but if someone does say hello this way, remember the proper response is “and the rest of the day to yourself!”. Use “sláinte” (slahn-chə, meaning “good health”) for an Irish toast. And, when writing, remember it’s Saint Paddy’s Day, not Saint Patty’s Day — to reflect the Irish spelling of the name Patrick: Pádraig.
And above all: have fun, drink responsibly, and Erin go Bragh!