St. Patrick's Day is celebrated on March 17, his religious feast day and the anniversary of his death in the fifth century. The Irish have observed this day as a religious holiday for over a thousand years. On St. Patrick's Day, which falls during the Christian season of Lent, Irish families would traditionally attend church in the morning and celebrate in the afternoon. Lenten prohibitions against the consumption of meat were waived and people would dance, drink and feast—on the traditional meal of Irish bacon and cabbage.
There are many traditions and symbols associated with St. Patrick's Day and Ireland. Here are a handful of the most popular practices.
The shamrock as symbol of Ireland and St. Patrick's Day is partly due to the natural abundance of clover plants in the country, but largely due to its strong association with Christianity. According to Robert Mahony, Professor of English and member of the Center for Irish Studies at Catholic University, legend has it that St. Patrick used the shamrock to visually illustrate the concept of the Trinity (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit) when trying to convert polytheistic pagans to Christianity.
"A clover is one plant with three leaves, but the three leaves are necessary to make it [complete]," explains Prof. Mahony. "[In Christianity,] God is three persons, but it's not the same as three gods." The simple analogy is thought to have helped non-Christians understand a fundamental element of the Christian religion, facilitating conversion.
It was through the retelling of this story that the shamrock became associated with St. Patrick and Ireland's conversion to Christianity. As a result, the shamrock is a widely used to commemorate Saint Patrick's Day, and in modern times has been appropriated by secular institutions as a symbol for the Irish.
Green So why do we all wear green?
Probably because you'll be pinched if you don't! School children started this tradition. Green is also the color of spring, the shamrock, and is connected with hope and nature. Historically, green has been a color used in the flags of several revolutionary groups in Ireland and as a result it appears in the official tri-color country flag, adopted in 1919.
In addition to that, Ireland is often called the "Emerald Isle" due to the lush natural greenery found on the island. Says Prof. Mahony, "One of the things that strikes people all the time is how Ireland is incredibly green--it's very far north, but it doesn't get frozen. When people say that 'Ireland has 40 shades of green,' they are right!"