Get Lucky With These Saint Patrick's Day Facts

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Saint Patrick’s Day is celebrated around the world on March 17. Outside Ireland, the holiday is especially beloved in countries home to a large number of citizens with Irish heritage, such as the United States or the United Kingdom. But how much do you know about the origins of this famous holiday? Learn more about this lucky day with these facts about Saint Patrick’s Day.

Saint Patrick Is One of Three Patron Saints of Ireland

Statue of Saint Patrick at Croagh Patrick in Ireland.
Credit: DorSteffen/ Shutterstock

Together with Saint Brigid and Saint Columba, Saint Patrick is one of three patron saints of Ireland. But ironically, given that he is now most famously associated with the country, he’s the only patron saint who wasn’t Irish! So how did Saint Patrick come to be associated with Ireland?

In the Confessio, the closest thing we have to Saint Patrick’s autobiography, he writes that he was kidnapped from England when he was 16 years old during a raid and taken across the Irish Sea. There, he was held in captivity for six years and found God. The work he did after that is the reason he’s credited with bringing Christianity to Ireland and why he was later chosen as one of the country’s patron saints.

Saint Patrick Was Most Likely British

An old fishing boat is seen at dusk at Ravenglass in Cumbria.
Credit: Kev Gregory/ Shutterstock

Though specific details about his birthplace and family are unknown, it seems likely that Saint Patrick was the son of a deacon in England. In the Confessio, Saint Patrick wrote that he was born in a place called Bannavem Taburniae. Historians have tried to figure out where that was. Some historians believe he was referring to the Roman settlement town of Bannaventa in Northamptonshire because the name is similar.

However, later on in the Confessio, Saint Patrick refers to being close to the sea. Bannaventa is inland, which leads to other theories that Bannavem Taburniae might have been a different Roman settlement, perhaps Glannoventa in Cumbria, now the town of Ravenglass. The geography makes more sense because of its proximity to the Irish Sea.

Patrick Wasn’t His Real Name

Night view of the St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin, Ireland.
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Historians believe Saint Patrick’s parents called him Maewyn Succat. During the fourth century when he was born, birth records were scarce. In fact, unless there was a record of a baptism, births wouldn’t be recorded in England until 1837 and even later — 1864 — in Ireland.

In his own writings, Saint Patrick refers to himself as Patricius, which means Padraig in Irish and Patrick in English. For instance, his “Epistola” or "Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus” begins: “I declare that I, Patrick – an unlearned sinner indeed – have been established a bishop in Ireland.”

Saint Patrick Is an Official Saint

Close up of statue of Saint Patrick.
Credit: ManuelVelasco/ iStock

There are plenty of people that would argue that Saint Patrick isn’t an official saint. They argue that in order to qualify for sainthood, a candidate needs official witnesses of his or her devout faith and charity who knew them throughout life. They claim that because Pope John XV didn’t canonize the first saint until 993, Patrick missed the mark for establishing sainthood by about 500 years.

However, there’s a caveat. Before 993, the local bishop had the power to proclaim saints and if a martyr’s remains were moved to a church, as happened to Patrick in 1186, that was enough to count as canonization. When Pope Paul VI thinned out the liturgical calendar in 1969, 33 saints lost their sainthood. However, unlike poor Saint Christopher, Saint Patrick survived the cull.

The Tradition of Wearing a Shamrock Dates Back Centuries

St Patrick's day party favors and food.
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The shamrock is one of the most popular symbols used to mark Saint Patrick’s Day. The sprig is often tucked into hat brims or used as some other form of decoration to outfits worn on the Catholic holiday. The name of this trefoil comes from the Irish term seamair óg, which means “young clover.” Precisely which variety of clover the phrase is referring to is a bit hazy, but white clover is the most commonly used to symbolize the day of good luck. Incidentally, one in every 10,000 shamrocks has a fourth leaf, which is considered lucky.

The shamrock is associated with Saint Patrick. Legend has it that he used its three leaves to illustrate the trinity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. In the 17th century, a specially minted set of coins called the Saint Patrick’s Coppers featured an image of the shamrock. However, the first written evidence of a link between the shamrock and Saint Patrick doesn’t appear until 1726, when a botanist and cleric named Caleb Threlkeld commented on the custom and its religious significance.

Green Wasn’t Always Associated With the Holiday

Chicago green river during Saint Patrick day.
Credit: saraporn/ Shutterstock

Green plays a huge role in any Saint Patrick’s Day celebration — ask anyone from Chicago, where the Chicago River is dyed for the occasion in a tradition that dates back to 1962. The color is a reference to the Emerald Isle, Ireland’s official nickname, since it appeared in a poem written by William Drennan at the turn of the 19th century. It ties in to the green stripe on the Irish flag too. Even leprechauns have gotten in on the act, ditching their original red-and-gold jackets from folklore for green. In fact, before the color green became so popular, Saint Patrick was often depicted wearing blue. One particular shade of sky blue is even known as “Saint Patrick’s Blue.”

It’s an Official Public Holiday in Just Three Countries

St. Patrick's Day parade in Manhattan, New York City.
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Obviously Saint Patrick’s Day is an official public holiday in Ireland and a bank holiday in Northern Ireland. Outside Ireland, however, you’ll also find celebrations wherever there are expats. The largest Saint Patrick’s Day parade, for instance, is in New York City, which attracts over two million people annually. Given that the 2010 U.S. census recognized 34.7 million citizens of Irish descent and the population of Ireland is just five million, it’s hardly surprising that the parade is larger than Dublin’s. It’s been going on a lot longer too.  

But hosting a parade and other special events doesn’t make Saint Patrick’s Day a public holiday in the United States. In fact, there are only two places which formally recognize March 17 in this way. One of them is the Caribbean island of Montserrat, founded by Irish refugees, and the other is the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador. But even though Saint Patrick is the patron saint of Nigeria, it’s not a public holiday there either.

Irish Pubs Used to Close on Saint Patrick’s Day

Irish Green Beer being poured.
Credit: Patrick Fore/ Unsplash

Wherever you celebrate, Saint Patrick’s Day is likely to be a more raucous, alcohol-fueled affair than it would have been in the past. As March 17 marked the death of Ireland’s patron saint, it was a religious feast day in the country, meaning pubs were legally required to stay closed. March 17 also regularly falls during Lent so that would have been another consideration to keep temptation at bay in this predominantly Catholic country. However, in 1960, the government passed legislation permitting pubs to open for limited hours. As a toastmaster might say to those celebrating their beloved saint: "May your troubles be less, and your blessings be more. And nothing but happiness come through your door."

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