St. Patrick’s Day was first celebrated in Ireland in the 17th century as a religious holiday to honor the country’s patron saint, who lived centuries earlier. Since then, celebrations have expanded, and March 17 is internationally celebrated in recognition of the Emerald Isle.
Widespread celebrations mean new customs have taken hold, many having little to do with St. Patrick or Ireland. To help you understand the origin of the holiday, here are four false beliefs about St. Patrick’s Day.
The belief: St. Patrick was Irish
In fact, Patrick was born in Roman Britain, the area of Britain governed by the Roman Empire, around 387 A.D., according to catholic.org. When Patrick was a teenager, Irish raiders attacked his family’s estate and stole him away to Ireland.
A prisoner for more than six years, Patrick worked as a shepherd and turned to Christianity for comfort, according to history.com. He escaped back to Britain, where he trained to become a priest and, 15 years later, returned to Ireland as a missionary. He died around March 17, 460 A.D.
Stories about Patrick banishing snakes from Ireland or introducing Christianity to the nation are exaggerations.
“The Irish culture centered around a rich tradition of oral legend and myth,” history.com says. “When this is considered, it is no surprise that the story of Patrick’s life became exaggerated over the centuries — spinning exciting tales to remember history has always been a part of the Irish way of life.”
The belief: Green is good luck in Ireland
While Americans wear green to avoid getting pinched, the color has a somber history in Ireland. During the potato famine of the 1840s, many Irish people left their land to avoid starvation, while those who stayed behind were forced to eat anything they could find, historian Christine Kinealy told NPR.
"People were so deprived of food that they resorted to eating grass," she said. "In Irish folk memory, they talk about people's mouths being green as they died."
Blue, on the other hand, has long been associated with St. Patrick and is the official color of the Order of St. Patrick, according to the Smithsonian. However, that color came to represent the fissure between Irish people and their rulers.
“From the late 18th to the 20th century, as the divide between the Irish population and the British crown deepened, the color green and St. Patrick's shamrock became a symbol of identity and rebellion for the Irish,” smithsonian.com says.
The belief: Irish holiday fare includes corned beef and green beer
Ireland had the corner on the corned beef industry in the 17th and 18th centuries, but it was primarily an export, as locals were too poor to eat it, according to the Smithsonian. Instead, the small amount of meat they could afford was salted pork or bacon, and they relied on potatoes.
Corned beef and cabbage came about in the United States, when Irish immigrants and their descendants living in New York were making enough money to afford corned beef, stewed with cabbage and potatoes.
Green beer is also a non-Irish tradition, although beer has roots in the country’s celebrations. Because St. Patrick’s Day was a religious holiday in Ireland, Christians feasted on the anniversary of the saint's death.
“Christians are allowed to put aside their Lenten restrictions on food and alcohol consumption on this day, which is why excessive drinking has become so permanently linked to the celebration,” Jeff Flowers writes for kegerator.com.
Other cultures added green coloring and, while some Dublin pubs may serve green beer, it is more typical in the U.S. and Canada, according to yourirish.com.
The belief: Leprechauns commit mischief on St. Patrick’s Day
OK, you probably don’t believe in leprechauns, but the mythical creatures appear throughout Irish folklore. You might have heard stories about stealing leprechauns’ pots of gold at the end of rainbows, being granted wishes by captured leprechauns and wearing green to avoid leprechaun pinches.
Leprechauns may stem from Tuatha Dé Danann, “the mysterious god-like people of ancient Ireland,” according to the Mythical Ireland website. “Stories of the Tuatha Dé are wide and varied, and contain a magical appeal which has not been lost to the immense time which has lapsed since then.”
A medieval story is the first known reference to leprechauns. In it, three of the creatures drag a sleeping man into the sea, until he wakes and catches them, requiring them to grant three wishes in exchange for their freedom.
New ways of observing a tradition are part of any holiday. Even in Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day has changed over the centuries. So join your friends and neighbors March 17 to celebrate all that is great about Irish culture.