This stereotype, regardless of the weight it carries, is annually celebrated on 17 March and is known worldwide as St Patrick’s Day. This proves to be the day when everything turns green, from your hair to your beer.

The day is celebrated across the world, from America to the Caribbean and even in places that you would have never expected, such as Tokyo and South Africa. Despite its popularity, the history, traditions and facts of this day will probably be the last thing on your beer-stricken mind. How much do people truly know about the interesting back story to this exciting day?

Jacky Bals, a first-year BEd student, says, “I know there is a tradition behind it, but I haven’t really looked into it. It’s mainly just an excuse to get drunk with friends.”

The exact dates of St Patrick’s life remain debated, but it is generally accepted that he lived in the fifth century. According to an article titled “Who was St Patrick?” on History. com, he was born in Britain into an aristocratic family of deacons and priests.

On the fact that St Patrick isn’t Irish, second-year BEd student Shakira Beecroft says, “I didn’t even know he wasn’t Irish, I would like to know why he is the symbol for an Irish holiday if he isn’t Irish himself.”

At the age of 16 Patrick was kidnapped by Irish raiders who apparently attacked his family’s estate. They took him to Ireland and imprisoned him for six years. It is said that he began dreaming about converting the Irish people to Christianity during this time.

After his escape from imprisonment, Patrick returned to England, but later went back to Ireland as a Christian missionary. The population of Ireland was predominantly pagan during this time. The History Channel reports that Patrick spent the remainder of his life in Ireland and died on the 17 March AD461, hence the date of the yearly celebration. After his death, he was honoured as Ireland’s patron saint due to the great impact he had on the religious beliefs of the Irish people.  According to NewAdvent.org, Patrick is not responsible for introducing Christianity to Ireland. Apparently Pope Celestine sent a bishop named Palladius to Ireland in AD431, years before Patrick returned to the Emerald Isle.

Another popular rumour regarding St Patrick tells of how he preached a sermon so powerful that it drove all the snakes on the island into the ocean. However, this legend is untrue as snakes are a rare sight in Ireland. Ireland became an island during the last ice age, separating it from England by about 550km of water. This prevented snakes from crossing over into Ireland from the mainland, and while it was still physically attached to England, the conditions were too cold for any type of reptiles to survive. The story most likely has its roots in the ostracising of paganism by St Patrick, making it more symbolic than factual.

A Time article called “St. Patrick’s blue” by Frances Romero claims that the colour green has not always been the colour of St Patrick’s Day. Knights who served in the order of St Patrick traditionally dressed in a colour named St Patrick’s blue, and this colour can still be seen on some ancient Irish flags. Green became the associated colour of the festivities because people wore clovers. The use of green also correlated with Ireland’s lush green fields. The clover, also known as a shamrock, is a symbol associated with this day and the Irish culture. Contrary to popular belief, it does not signify good luck, but rather Christian pride. It became popular when St Patrick used a clover to portray the Holy Trinity and thereafter Irish citizens began wearing shamrocks on their clothes on 17 March to show that they were proud to be Irish and Christian.

The leprechaun, also known as the lobaircin in Irish folklore, is a well-known association with St Patrick’s Day and also Irish culture. The name leprechaun literally means small-bodied fellow. The origin of this mythical creature is Celtic and falls in the category of fairies and dwarfs. The leprechaun is mischievous and carries a pot of gold.

Jolyon Attwooll writes about how St Patrick’s Day is celebrated across the globe in his article called “St Patrick’s Day 2014: celebrations and parades around the world” published in The Telegraph. According to Attwooll, St Patrick’s Day as we celebrate it today also has its roots in the USA. Up until  the 1700s the day was solely observed by the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland and it was a strictly religious holiday. Irish immigrants in the USA began celebrating the day socially and the next 300 years saw it spread all over the globe, turning into an excuse to drink green beer, paint your hair green and throw your name away.

Today, there are various traditions around the world that people partake in to celebrate the holiday. In Chicago, Illinois, the city annually dumps 18kg of green dye into the Chicago River in order to create a massive green snake flowing through the city. More than 100 000 people observe the transformation of the river every year.

St Patrick’s Day seems to be one of the world’s most famous holidays, and it can be enjoyed even more if you know the back story. Go out this St Patrick’s Day and truly celebrate it. Dress up, gear yourself with Irish symbols, put on your best accent and try out one of these failsafe Irish pickup lines: “I might not have four leaves, but if you kiss me I’ll bring you luck,” or “Come over to my place and I’ll show you my Lucky Charms.”

Illustration: Johann van Tonder

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