(RNN) Here’s to St. Patrick, one of the foremost patron saints of Ireland who died March 17, 461 AD (give or take a year or two). Over the past few centuries, the date of his death has evolved into one of the wildest and certainly greenest celebrations of the year in the US and in Ireland.
Scholars say St. Patrick came from a wealthy British family and was kidnapped to Ireland as a teenager, then forced to work as a shepherd on a mountainside. He escaped the island and returned to Britain. Shortly after, the mythology says, voices called him back to the Emerald Isle to convert the Celts to Christianity.
He was an ordained saint, but he was admonished by the church and royalty, writes Philip Freeman in St. Patrick of Ireland: A Biography. By the time St. Patrick died, Freeman writes, he was all but forgotten. But then legends about him emerged and unfolded: It was said he was the first to use the shamrock as a metaphor for the holy trinity. Many credited him with driving the snakes from Ireland - though historians say there never were any snakes in Ireland. And legend had it that his walking stick transformed into a tree.
In Ireland before the 1970s, St. Patrick’s Day was little more than a minor holy day, with mass followed by families indulging in celebratory feasts, Freeman wrote, St. Patrick's day as we know it originated in the United States. The first St. Patrick’s Day parade was in 1762 in New York, when Irish soldiers and ex-patriots swathed themselves in green - a symbol of Irish pride that was banned in Ireland at the time - and took to the streets to sing Irish songs, play traditional tunes on bagpipes and drink.
There is a reason so many pints of beer flow on March 17. The date falls during the Lenten season, when Catholics traditionally give up one or more of their vices, in many cases, drinking. The period spans from Lent, the day after Mardi Gras, until Easter.
But when St. Paddy's rolls around, everyone has permission to indulge in whatever they were avoiding, just for one day.
Along with the alcohol comes lots of food. But the traditional corned beef and cabbage feast originated not in Ireland but in the US, cobbled together by Irish immigrants. Celebrants wear lots of green to symbolize Irish pride. In 1961, Chicagoans began dyeing the Chicago River green in celebration of the day, There are about 100 St. Patrick's Day celebrations across the US, and some 30 of them are major events.
In Savannah, GA, where St. Patrick's is a legal holiday, hundreds of thousands of people gather along the river. In Boston, where it's estimated that a quarter of the population has Irish ancestry, the parade begins in "Southie," or south Boston, and draws anywhere from half a million to a million people each year. Still, Boston can't claim to be the most Irish American city in the - the US Census reports that honor belongs to Butte, MT
And while Dublin and other spots in Ireland have caught up with the Americans in the past 40 years, New York City is still home to the largest St. Patrick's Day celebration in the world.
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