"I blush and fear exceedingly to reveal my lack of education."
– St. Patrick, Declaration
Top O' the morning to you, Chicagoland! How was your St. Patrick's Day weekend? Before you send out those emails correcting me (and letting me know that the phrase "top o' the morning" is not actually used by Irish people) I'm already aware it's not a genuine Irish phrase. The reality of St. Patrick's Day is very different than the stereotypes we now associate with the holiday. St. Patrick wasn't an Irishman, there were Christians living in Ireland before he got there, it's very unlikely he "drove the snakes out of Ireland", and corned beef is rarely eaten by Irish people. Perhaps most importantly, St. Patrick's Day was traditionally a solemn religious holiday in Ireland -- not a time for extravagant parties and beer.
Perhaps the reason why St. Patrick's Day has diverged so much from its roots is because the real St. Patrick is shrouded in mystery and much is lost to history. In the 1940s, it was first proposed that the person we now refer to as "St. Patrick" was actually two Christian figures living in Ireland around the same time: Palladius, or "Old Patrick", the first bishop of Armagh, Primate of All Ireland. (Bishop of the Christians of Ireland) and the slave Patrick, "archapostle of the Scots", from the Roman Empire, who was active as a missionary in Ireland during the second half of the 5th century. This was a radical idea in the 1940s, but modern historians mostly agree that these two historical figures got confused as the centuries progressed, and their biographies were eventually merged into a single figure.
The only thing we have from "St. Patrick" that survives today are two letters written in Latin from the 400s. In English, they are known as the "Declaration" and "the Letter to the soldiers of Coroticus". Historians generally agree both letters are genuine and were mostly likely written by the Christian missionary later known as St. Patrick. In the letters, he gives a brief account of his life and mission. We know his father was a Christian deacon, and that at the age of 16, Patrick was taken prisoner by a group of Irish raiders who were attacking his family's estate. They transported him to Ireland where he spent six years in captivity as a slave.
Lonely and afraid, Patrick turned to his religion for solace, and became very fervent in his Christian faith. He finally escaped his captors, and decided to leave Ireland, when he received a calling (possibly from an angel in a dream) that he should to return to Ireland as a missionary and convert the Irish people to Christianity. Although there were already a small number of Christians on the island when Patrick arrived, most Irish in the 5th century practiced a nature-based pagan religion. Six years of captivity had given Patrick a familiarity with the Irish language and culture, and he incorporated traditional Irish beliefs to teach people about Christianity.
Centuries later, it was said that Patrick superimposed a sun, a powerful Irish symbol, onto the Christian cross to create what is now called a Celtic cross, and used a traditional Irish three leaf clover to explain the concept of the trinity. How much of this actually occurred is unknown. Much of what is associated with "St. Patrick" grew out of a tradition of oral legend and myth, which has a very rich history in Irish storytelling. It is believed St. Patrick died around 461 in Saul, Ireland and is thought to have been buried in Ulster, County Down, Ireland.
No Pope ever formally canonized Patrick as a saint, but nevertheless has been considered a saint in the Catholic Church for over a thousand years. Canonizations were done on the diocesan or regional level in early church history. Patrick was widely venerated in Ireland, and celebration of St. Patrick's Day became common around the world as Irish immigrants spread to various places.
Likewise, since St. Patrick predates denominational Christianity, he is not simply a Catholic saint. He recognized as a saint and widely venerated in various Christian Churches including the Episcopal Church and/or the Anglican Communion, the various Lutheran Churches, and also among Eastern Orthodox Christians, where there are various Orthodox icons dedicated to him (usually depicting him in green with a bishop's hat and holding a three leaf clover), and eastern Orthodox Christians believe he originated from their region of the world before he was sent to Ireland by Pope Celestine I. Although it had been celebrated for centuries earlier, St. Patrick's feast day of March 17th was officially placed on the universal liturgical calendar in the Catholic Church in the early 1600s.
How we celebrate St. Patrick's Day in Chicago and most the United States differs greatly from the traditional types of celebrations that occurred in Ireland for years. St. Patrick's Day began to be annually celebrated in the ninth and tenth centuries in Ireland. Neither the local Catholic Church -- nor the Irish community -- ever held parties, parades, or beer drinking at local Irish pubs on St. Patrick's Day (in has become popular in Ireland in modern times, mainly since 1995, and due to the influence of world culture)
In Chicago, the tradition of dyeing the river green on St. Patrick's Day began in 1962, when Chicago pollution-control workers used green dye to trace illegal sewage discharges in the river. They released 100 pounds of green vegetable dye into the river – enough to keep it green for a week, and it was thought this would be fun to do every year in honor of St. Patrick's Day (although only 40 pounds of environmentally safe dye are used today). Corned beef, used for traditional "Irish luncheons" and dinners for many Catholic parishes and Christian families in America, developed in the United States around the turn of the century. Half of the "traditional meal" is genuine, as cabbage and potatoes have long been major foods of the Irish diet, but people in Ireland traditionally served bacon, not corned beef.
As I've noted before, some of the politically correct police take offense at the phrase "Merry Christmas" being used universally in America, claiming it might be "offensive" to non-Christians and those who don't celebrate Christmas (even though Christmas is widely celebrated as a secular holiday by many non-Christians). Oddly enough, there's no similar outrage at St. Valentine's Day and St. Patrick's Day being promoted universally in America and no effort to give "equal coverage" to equivalent non-Christian holidays falling around the same time on the calender. Perhaps people aren't even aware that Valentine's Day refers to a Christian saint, but what about St. Patrick's Day? Most people are pretty familiar with the story of St. Patrick. In Ireland, Saint Patrick's Day is a holy day of obligation for Roman Catholics and also a feast day in the Church of Ireland. In America, it's mostly a secular holiday to celebrate Irish pride.
Perhaps we need to take this holiday back to its roots. Happy St. Patrick's Day, Chicagoland!