St. Patrick's Day

March 17, 2015 · updated February 15, 2022

Vintage St. Patrick's Day Postcard
Vintage St. Patrick's Day postcard: "The month is March, the day Seventeen; Let's skip and dance on Erin's green. All on St. Patrick's Day." Bluebells 2008

St. Patrick's Day occurs annually on March 17 and honors a 5th-century Christian missionary to the pagans of Ireland. This historically Catholic holiday has become especially popular as a secular festival. Today, St. Patrick's Day is celebrated worldwide by the Irish, those of Irish descent, and everyone else who enjoys being "Irish for a day."

History and Meaning of St. Patrick's Day

Saint Patrick (387-461) was an English (or perhaps Scottish) missionary to Ireland. Scholars agree that he is a historical figure and that he converted many of the pagans on the island to Christianity.

The feast day of Saint Patrick has been observed in Ireland on March 17 for hundreds of years. The date falls during the fasting season of Lent, but on Saint Patrick's Day the prohibitions against eating meat were lifted, and the Irish would celebrate their patron saint with dancing, drinking, and feasting on the traditional meal of Irish bacon (or corned beef) and cabbage.

Symbols of St. Patrick's Day


According to Christian legend, St. Patrick used the three-leafed clover to illustrate the doctrine of the Trinity to his pagan audience in Ireland. However, this story did not appear until more than 1000 years after St. Patrick's death.

In ancient Ireland, the Celtic people revered the shamrock as a sacred plant because it symbolized the rebirth of spring. By the 17th century, when the English began to seize Irish land and suppress Irish language and religion, the shamrock became a symbol of Irish nationalism.


The diminutive creatures we know as leprechauns were known in ancient Irish as lobaircin, meaning "small-bodied fellow." Belief in leprechauns probably stems from Celtic belief in fairies, tiny creatures who could use their magical powers for good or evil. In Celtic folklore, the lobaircin were cranky fairies who mended the shoes of the other fairies. They were also mischievous and delighted in trickery, which they used to guard their fabled treasure.

The cheerful friendly version of the leprechaun known to us today is based in large part on Walt Disney's 1959 film Darby O'Gill and the Little People. It quickly evolved into a symbol of St. Patrick's Day and Ireland in general.

Corned Beef and Cabbage

Corned beef and cabbage is the traditional meal enjoyed by many on St. Patrick's Day, but only half of it is truly Irish. Cabbage has long been a staple of the Irish diet, but it was traditionally served with Irish bacon, not corned beef. The corned beef was substituted for bacon by Irish immigrants to the Americas around the turn of the century who could not afford the real thing. They learned about the cheaper alternative from their Jewish neighbors.

St. Patrick's Day Parades

A major parade takes place in Dublin and in most other Irish towns and villages. The three largest parades of recent years have been held in Dublin, New York, and Birmingham, England. Parades also take place in London, Paris, Rome, Moscow, Beijing, Hong Kong, Singapore and throughout the Americas.

The New York City celebration is the oldest and largest St. Patrick's Day Parade in the world. The parade dates back to 1762, and in 2003 more than 150,000 marchers (bands, military and police groups, county associations, emigrant societies, social and cultural clubs etc.) participated.

As might be expected in such a large event, it has also been dogged with controversy. Its organizers banned Irish gays and lesbians from marching as a group, an act which led to calls in Ireland (which, since 1992 has some of the most liberal gay laws in the world) for its boycotting. In addition, the Ancient Order of Hibernians has on occasion appointed controversial Irish Republican figures (some of whom were barred from the US) to be its Grand Marshal.

The longest running St. Patrick's Day parade in Canada takes place in Montreal, which held its first parade in 1824.

Other St. Patrick's Day Customs

The most common traditions on St. Patrick's Day include wearing green, enjoying Irish folk music and food, and by consuming large quantities of Irish beer (sometimes dyed green), such as Murphys, Smithwicks, Harp or Guinness or other Irish liquors such as Irish whiskey, Irish Coffee or Baileys Irish Cream.

In the United States, St. Patrick's Day would not be St. Patrick's Day unless the Chicago River is dyed green. This tradition began in 1962, when Chicago pollution-control workers used green dye to trace illegal sewage discharges in the river. The workers thought it might be a fun way to celebrate St. Patrick's Day, so they released 100 pounds of green vegetable dye into the river – enough to keep it green for a week! The idea was a hit, and continues to this day. However, only 40 pounds of dye are used today to minimize environmental damage.

Since the 1990s, Irish taoisigh (prime ministers) have attended special functions either on St. Patrick's Day or a day or two earlier, in the White House, where they present shamrock to the President of the United States. A similar presentation is made to the Speaker of the House. Originally only representatives of the Republic of Ireland attended, but since the mid-1990's all major Irish political parties from north and south are invited, with the attendance including the representatives of the Irish government, the Ulster Unionists, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, Sinn Féin and others.

In recent years it is common for the entire Irish Government to be abroad representing the country in various parts of the world. In 2003, the President of Ireland celebrated the holiday in Sydney, the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) was in Washington, while other Irish government members attended ceremonies in New York, Boston, San Francisco, San Jose, Savannah, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Diego, New Zealand, Hong Kong, South Africa, Korea, Japan and Brazil.

In Britain, the Queen Mother used to present bowls of shamrock specially flown over from Ireland to members of the Irish Guards, a regiment in the British Army made up of Irish people from both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

St. Patrick's Day in Ireland

Many Irish people wear a bunch of shamrock on their lapels or caps on St. Patrick's Day, while children wear tricolored (green, white and orange) badges. Girls traditionally wore green ribbons in their hair (many still do).

Unlike its American counterpart, St. Patrick's Day in Ireland has primarily been a religious festival. Until the 1970s, pubs were required by law to close on March 17. However, since 1995 the Irish government has sought to make St. Patrick's Day an opportunity to showcase Ireland and Irish culture to the world.

The St. Patrick's Day celebrations in Dublin have thus been extended to a week-long event called St. Patrick's Festival, encompassing a spectacular fireworks display (Skyfest), open-air music, street theater and the traditional parade. Over one million people attended the celebrations in 2004.