For 364 days of the year, approximately 11 percent of the United States is Irish (which, weirdly, is numerically seven times larger than the actual population of Ireland). One day of the year, however, you’re legally obligated to slap on some green, drink Guinness like you like listening to Flogging Molly. That day, of course, is St. Patrick’s Day, and while most people use it as an excuse to drink and wear funny green hats, it is, believe or not, an actual Catholic holiday based around a venerated saint.
Who was St. Patrick, by the way? The way most people know about him is that he (probably) had red hair, chased the snakes out of the Ireland (or something) and, I dunno, wore green a lot?
Here are the facts we know: He was born in Roman-occupied Britain sometime in the fourth or fifth century to farmer parents, whom, by some accounts, owned a large number of slaves or vassals. His father Calpornius was a Christian deacon; it’s unknown if they were Roman, but Patrick considered himself a Briton.
When he was around 16, he and several others were captured by Irish raiders and sold as slaves in Ireland. There he herded sheep and contemplated his life choices, turning to his faith to escape the cold, wet misery of shepherd's work. Six years went by and he escaped back to Britain with the trusty help of his ol’ pal God, who sent him helpful advice and a herd of wild pigs when he was starving in the woods (which is the Christian equivalent of your friend GrubHubbing you when you’re out of cash). He also refused to suck another man’s boobs for ship passage (which was a pagan way of swearing fealty). I mean, hey, stand your ground, I suppose.
After returning to Britain a newly-enlightened man, the not-yet-saint would soon be called back to the Emerald Isle; a man, Victoricus, who Dan Schneider named a show after, appeared to him in a dream and told him to get his ass over to Ireland and convert all these goddamn pagans running around and making stone circles everywhere. For Jesus, of course.
Ya can’t put a request from Jesus on hold, so Pat went back to school, studied to be a priest and was later ordained as a bishop. He then hauled over to Ireland and started converting people to Christianity left and right, convincing wealthy noblewomen to be nuns and converting the sons of pagan chieftains. This didn’t sit well with a lot of folks, and he was repeatedly robbed, beaten, imprisoned and generally threatened during his time.
There are multiple fables and myths. The legend that St. Patrick used a shamrock to teach about the Holy Trinity (Father, Son, Holy Ghost) has historically been considered to be untrue; the first instance it appeared in writing was in the early 1700s, well after his death. Another myth: St. Patrick banishing the snakes from the isle. While you’d be hard-pressed to find a danger noodle in Dublin (outside of a pet shop, of course) snakes really never made it to Ireland. It’s an island, and it’s a wee bit hard for reptiles to cross the continental shelf. The myth may either be symbolic (St. Patrick drove the “snakes,” aka the pagan druids, away) or just plain plagiarized from another ophidiophobic Christian legend.
Nevertheless, the myths persist, as did St. Patrick. He lived into his sixties, preaching until the end and died in Saul, Downpatrick (heh, heh) where he’d built his first church, on March 17.
Even after the church canonized him, St. Patrick’s Day remained off the radar for the majority of the population for a while. While it was noted as a feast day, people didn’t go all out with the parades and the green stuff until 1762, when Irish-American soldiers celebrating the end of the Revolutionary War held a parade on the day in New York City.
From there, many immigrant Irish families used the day to reconnect with their Irish roots, drink a lot, take a break from Lent restrictions and just plain party. Irish charities and aid societies would hold dinners and celebrations, and when over one million Irish immigrants fled to the United States to escape the potato famine in the late 1800s, that number only grew. Soon, non-Irish Americans began to join in on the fun, and the reverie only grew from there.
Today, St. Patrick’s day is celebrated by millions, with an estimated 33 million pints of Guinness being consumed during the holiday, and a ridiculous amount of green dye used. St. Patrick, who supposedly lived in poverty during his service and refused money and gifts for his preaching, would most likely not approve of the $4 billion Americans spend on the holiday a year. However, I supposed that you can’t stop the fire, or the green confetti.
Happy St. Patrick's Day. Stay verdant, readers, and stay weird.
Marlese Lessing is the news editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. She tweets @marlese_lessing.