Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Luck of the Irish

March 17 is highlighted on my calender with a big green marker to remind myself it will be St Patrick's Day. It's my day to show off my heritage, to wear green, go to the parade in town, and search out a lucky shamrock - or even better catch a leprechaun and make him hand over that pot o' gold.

Did you know St Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, was not actually Irish? He was born on this day around the year 385 somewhere near Dumbarton, Scotland. When he was sixteen Patrick was captured by Irish raiders looking for slaves to work their farms. Six years later, he ran away, boarded a ship, and headed to Europe where he finished his education and had a vision from God telling him to return to Ireland and convert the pagans to Christianity. St Patrick is best known for ordering all the snakes to leave Ireland, an event that, according to legend occured on the mountain known as Croagh Patrick. On the last day in July every year, hundreds of pilgrims gather there to commemorate their patron saint. Here are some other interesting facts about the holiday:
  • Each year thousands of Irish Americans gather with their loved ones on St Patrick's Day to share a traditional meal of corned beef and cabbage. Though cabbage has long been an Irish food, corned beef only began to be associated with St Patrick's Day at the turn of the century. Irish immigrants living in New York City's Lower East Side substituted corned beef for their traditional dish of Irish bacon to save money.
  • Irish soda bread gets its name and distinctive character from the use of baking soda rather than yeast as a leavening agent.
  • Lime green chrysanthemums are often requested for St Patrick's Day parades and celebrations.
  • The first St Patrick's Day parade took place in the United States on March 17, 1762, when Irish soldiers serving in the English military marched through New York City.
  • More than 100 St Patrick's Day parades are held across the nation. New York City and Boston are home to the largest celebrations.
  • At the annual New York City parade, participants march up Fifth Avenue from 44th Street to 86th Street. More than 150,000 people take part in the event which does not allow cars or floats.
  • The shamrock, which is also called the "seamroy" by the Celts, was a sacred plant in ancient Ireland, because it symbolized the rebirth of spring. By the seventeenth century, the shamrock had become a symbol of emerging Irish nationalism. As the English began to seize Irish land and make laws against the use of Irish language and the practice of Catholicism, many Irish began to wear the shamrock as a symbol of their pride in their heritage and their displeasure with English rule.
  • It has long been told that during his time in Ireland, St. Patrick once stood on a hilltop with a wooden staff by his side and banished all the snakes from Ireland. In fact, the island nation was never home to any snakes. The "banishing of snakes" was really a metaphor for the eradication of pagan ideology from Ireland and the triumph of Christianity. Within 200 years of Patrick's arrival, Ireland was completely Christianized.
  • Belief in leprechauns probably stems from Celtic belief in fairies, tiny men and women who could use their magical powers to serve good or evil. In Celtic folktales, leprechauns were cranky souls responsible for mending the shoes of the other fairies. Though only minor figures in Celtic folklore the leprechauns were known for their trickery which they often used to protect their fabled "pot of gold".
  • Leprecauns had nothing to do with St Patrick or the celebration of St Patrick's Day. In 1959 Walt Disney released a film called Darby O'Gill and the Little People which introduced America to a very different sort of leprecaun. This cheerful, friendly leprechaun is a purely American invention, but quickly evolved into an easily recognizable symbol of both St Patrick's Day and Ireland in general.
St Patrick's Day is the one holiday where everybody can be Irish for the day. Folks run around with "Kiss Me I'm Irish" buttons, and I know a few of my friends who dye their beards green. Big cities celebrate by turning their rivers and harbors green (see the picture of Chicago). Local pubs serve green beer and hold Oh Danny Boy singing contests. All in all, it is a day of fun, and a day to reflect on one man's commitment to his faith.

St Patrick's Day is only two weeks away. For some fun activities for the family check out this website.

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