St. Patrick’s Day is a holiday celebrated in many United States cities with parades, drinking, and wearing or dying everything green, from fountains to rivers. Although the holiday purports to be Irish, many of the “St. Paddy’s” traditions most of us are familiar with are uniquely American. Over more than a thousand years, these two cultures have celebrated the same holiday in very different ways—but eventually come around to almost the same result.
St. Patrick: History and Legend
The man who was to become St. Patrick was likely born into a respectable family in Roman Britain around the end of the fourth century. He was captured by Irish pirates when he was around 16 years old and spent six years as a shepherd on the island before escaping and returning to Britain. He then became a cleric, returning to Ireland as a missionary. Legend credits St. Patrick using the native three-leafed green shamrock to illustrate Christian doctrine, and he is traditionally associated with the plant. He is credited with being the father of Catholicism in Ireland, and shortly following his death, believed to be on March 17, 461, he was recognized by the regional church authorities as a saint. Ireland remains an officially Catholic country, celebrating St. Patrick as a both a spiritual and cultural vanguard.
Celebrating St. Patrick’s Day: Evolving Traditions
Accounts of St. Patrick’s Day being celebrated as a special day by Irish Catholics date from as early as the ninth and tenth centuries. In the 1600s, it became an official holy day in the Irish Catholic church and a feast day in the Anglican Church of Ireland. In 1903, it became an official secular public holiday, or “bank holiday” (i.e., a day when banks and other public offices are closed), and the first parade was held in Waterford, Ireland.
St. Patrick’s Day parades got larger and more boisterous over the next few years. In 1927, the Irish Free State government banned the sale of alcohol on St. Patrick’s Day to attempt to prevent rowdiness; alcohol sales on the day were not allowed until 1961. For most of the rest of the 20th century, St. Patrick’s Day was generally a low-key Irish bank holiday celebrated with minimal celebration or fanfare.
In the 1990s, the Irish government re-branded the holiday as an occasion to showcase Ireland, Irish culture, traditions, and continuingly-evolving values. Celebrations now include public parades and festivals, céilithe (Irish traditional music sessions), and formal gatherings such as banquets and dances; the week around the holiday is dedicated to the preservation of the Irish language and heritage. Successful promotion has given a significant boost to tourism in the region during its traditional off season.
Everyone’s Irish on Saint Patrick’s Day
In the United States, St. Patrick’s Day parades began in the 18th century and have only grown in popularity ever since. In fact, the first recorded St. Patrick’s Day parade was held in New York City in 1762—more than a century before the first Irish parade for the holiday! Communities of Irish ancestry joyfully celebrated their native land and culture with parades involving marching bands, the military, police and fire brigades, cultural and charitable organizations, and other community groups. Cities with significant Irish immigrant populations, like Boston, Chicago, and New York City, held large gatherings to celebrate the traditions, music, and culture of their homeland to help quell their homesickness and express their pride in their heritage for new generations of American-born Irish.
Drinking copious toasts to St. Patrick, Irish culture, and the community is one of the American traditions that sprang up around the holiday; others include eating corned beef and cabbage, which are not traditionally Irish foods but were embraced by the immigrant community as cheaper substitutes for lamb or pork. A holiday dedicated to music, dance, eating, and drinking caught on quickly and was eagerly embraced by not only the Irish immigrants but also the communities around them. Many cities still engage in holiday traditions such as dying rivers and fountains green in addition to hosting parades and official civic events. Nationally, the holiday has also been embraced by greeting card and candy manufacturers as well as countless bars and restaurants.
An Increasingly Global Culture
Over time, what was once a sedate celebration of a relatively minor religious figure on a small European island has become an internationally celebrated holiday as Irish-American traditions found their way back to inspire Ireland’s celebrations. As the saying goes, everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, as cultures on both sides of the Atlantic now embrace joyful secular celebrations of the holiday.
Knowing how different cultures celebrate holidays around the world is vital for companies that are taking their business global. Understanding each culture’s traditions and values helps you take maximum advantage of and avoid any social faux pas related to such celebrations. Engaging a translation partner like Acclaro that uses local translation teams can help you reach a deeper local perspective and understanding of your markets as you expand globally.