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St. Patrick's Day is rich with history and tradition in U.S.

Mechele R. Dillard's picture

Many traditions surround St. Patrick's Day--wearing green, dyeing the Chicago River green, and having parades--but, why do we celebrate St. Patrick's Day in the United States?

St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated on March 17th each year. This year, 2011, the day falls on Thursday. The celebration of St. Patrick’s Day is the religious feast day of St. Patrick, as well as the anniversary of his death in the fifth century, and falls within the Christian Lent. It has been celebrated by the Irish for over 1,000 years. Traditionally, Irish families attended a church service on the morning of March 17th, then held a feast during the afternoon, eating heartily on cabbage and bacon, when Lenten prohibitions against eating meat were waived in favor of the festival. Modern celebrations of St. Patrick’s Day are held across the United States, and often include parades.

St. Patrick is said to have driven the snakes out of Ireland. However, snakes were never native to Ireland. Many people believe that snakes were simply a metaphor for druidic religions, which disappeared over time after St. Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland.

Many people would be surprised to know that the first St. Patrick’s Day parade was held in the United States, not Ireland. On March 17, 1762, Irish soldiers who were serving in the English military marched through New York City to observe the holiday, constituting the first St. Patrick’s Day parade. Subsequently, annual parades were held on the holiday, and usually featured bagpipe and drum music. But, in 1848, several Irish Aid societies in New York decided that combining the many parades into one large parade would be the most prudent, and the world’s oldest civilian parade, the annual New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade, was created. Over 150,000 people participate in the parade each year, while approximately 3 million people line the 1.5 mile parade route. Other famous parades include Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and Savannah, but those parades are much smaller, with approximately 10,000 to 20,000 participants.

The history of the St. Patrick’s Day parade in America, however, is not all positive. In 1845, almost a million poor, uneducated Irish Catholics flooded America, during the Great Potato Famine in Ireland. The American Protestant majority did not take well to the immigrants, and when the parades were held in celebration, many people made fun of these Irish Americans and their heritage. But, over time, Irish Americans began to come together, realizing the great power of their numbers, and became known as the “green machine,” an important swing vote for political candidates. The annual St. Patrick’s Day parades became a must for candidates and elected politicians alike, including 1948, when President Truman attended the New York City St. Patrick’s Day parade.

People of all geographical backgrounds celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in the United States today. It is a common tradition for people to wear green on this day. Interestingly, however, the color is considered unlucky in Ireland, as Irish folklore indicates that it is the favorite color of faeries, who are likely to steal people, children in particular, if they wear too much green.

One green tradition is dyeing the Chicago River green. This began in 1962, when city pollution-control workers were using dyes to trace illegal sewage discharges, and thought that releasing green dye into the river would be an interesting and unique way to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. They did—and the 100 pounds of green vegetable dye that they used kept the river green for a week. Today, in a modern-day effort to be “green,” only 40 pounds of the dye are used, keeping the river green for only a few hours.

Some people believe, however, that the idea to dye a city’s river green came not from the pollution-control workers in Chicago, but from Savannah mayor Tom Woolley in 1961. However, the attempt to dye the river in Savannah was not the success it was in Chicago, and the feat became a tradition up north, not down south.

For more information on the history of St. Patrick’s Day, visit and National Geographic.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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