Saint Patrick’s Day is a holiday brimming over with myths and traditions that date back centuries. The March 17 holiday is celebrated in many corners of the world. However, the rituals of celebration and traditions can vary dramatically among different cultures and countries. The holiday is a prime example of how much Americans do not know about the holiday itself or the country from which it originated.
One of the greatest myths and misconceptions about the holiday stems from its namesake–Saint Patrick. Many are unaware of the fact that the patron saint was not originally from Ireland. Patrick was an English nobleman born around 400 A.D. in Britain and kidnapped by Irish pirates at the age of 16. His family was religious, but he practiced atheism early in his life. However, he was reawakened to his faith while enslaved in Ireland. He was enslaved in Ireland for 17 years, escaped and returned to Britain, then returned to Ireland as a missionary. March 17, the day of celebration around the world, is widely believed to be the date of Patrick’s death. However, the true circumstances and location of Patrick at the time of his death remain unclear. He was not immediately recognized as Ireland’s patron saint following his death around 461 A.D. The mythology surrounding Patrick grew, and centuries later, he was honored as the patron saint of Ireland.
Another common Saint Patrick’s Day myth and tradition that requires further elucidation stem from the holiday’s iconic symbol of the shamrock. According to folklore, Patrick used the three leaves of a shamrock to explain the Christian holy trinity–the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit or Holy Ghost as it is sometimes referenced. It is customary to wear shamrocks on March 17 to commemorate the holiday and this custom dates back nearly 400 years. However, botanists say shamrocks are not uniquely Irish. Most clover species can be found in many areas of Europe.
A third common myth and misconception surrounding Saint Patrick’s Day involved Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland. While it is true that no snakes exist in Ireland today, the fact is they never did. Ireland is an island land mass surrounded by icy water, which is much too cold to allow snakes to migrate from Britain or anywhere else. This myth most likely stems from the symbolic nature of snakes in literature as evil and Patrick driving out the evil, pagan, ungodly ways from Ireland, as well as bringing a new sense of life and purpose to the country.
There are numerous Saint Patrick’s Day myths and traditions that could be explored and observed. Some of these myths and traditions date back centuries while others are modern-day observances. It is even speculated that many of these common myths and legends could have been concocted by well-meaning monks centuries after St. Patrick’s death. Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations are vastly diverse among different cultures and countries throughout the world. Each tradition and myth could symbolize a different meaning for individuals and groups who participate. When March 17 comes around each year, everyone wants to be Irish.
Opinion Written and Edited by Leigh Haugh
Christian Science Monitor–The True Spirit of St. Patrick’s Day
National Geographic–St. Patrick’s Day 2014: Facts, Myths, and Traditions
USA TODAY–St. Patrick’s Day Traditions Explained
MLive–Five Irish Myths You Can Bust for Your Friends on St. Patrick’s Day (and One Cool Fact About Whiskey)
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