Last year, my son William’s pre-school class worked diligently to make decorations for St. Patrick’s day. He has not been able to stop talking about the leprechaun trap they built in their class. I explained to him that it was fun to use your imagination on such games, but never confuse pretend with reality. Santa Clause, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy and Leprechauns are fun make-believe creatures that give us an opportunity to use our creativity, but they should not be confused with the real people and events that inspire our traditions.
In light of my sons class, I thought I would blog today on the history of St. Patrick. The History Channel gives a good background on the modern traditions and celebrations of the holiday.
St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated on March 17; his religious feast day and the anniversary of his death in the fifth century. The Irish have observed this day as a religious holiday for over a thousand years.
On St. Patrick’s Day, which falls during the Christian season of Lent, Irish families would traditionally attend church in the morning and celebrate in the afternoon. Lenten prohibitions against the consumption of meat were waived and people would dance, drink, and feast—on the traditional meal of Irish bacon and cabbage.
But why was St. Patrick so important to the Irish?
Jonathan Dodson, at Church Planting Novice, gives a good start to the history.
St. Patrick was a Romano-British citizen, kidnapped in Britain at age 16 and served as a slave for 6 years in Wood of Fochoill, Ireland. He later returned to the homeland of his captivity, Ireland, to spread the gospel and plant churches. His mission to Ireland 457-492 began at age 40 after being turned down after his first request to be commissioned as a missionary.
Getting turned down as a missionary did not stop St. Patrick. Although he had many doubts about his education and abilities, he remained faithful to his mission to spread the Gospel among the Irish. The following story comes from historian William Federer; author of , “St. Patrick: The Real History of His Life, From Tragedy to Triumph.” as reported on MSNBC.
“[St. Patrick] was actually a missionary and he converted 120,000 druids from paganism to Christianity.”
“He started over 300 churches and used the three-leafed clover to teach the [Holy] Trinity,” Federer says, noting that this teaching tool is now the symbol of St. Patrick’s Day and Ireland itself.
Patrick himself, though, was actually born in nearby Wales.
“Different Viking tribes began attacking and carrying away slaves, and Patrick was one of those carried away as a slave to Ireland,” says Federer. “He was there from 16 years old to 22 years old, when he had a dream in which he heard the Lord tell him to escape. So he did.”
“He went to the shore and, sure enough, there was a boat. He hopped aboard and hitchhiked his way across Europe and made his way back to Britain. His life was pretty uneventful until he was 40 years old, when he had another dream. That’s when things started to get interesting.”
That was when Patrick returned to Ireland as a missionary.
“His style was evangelism was to walk right into the smoky dens of these chieftans. The druids knew that this new religion was going to displace them, and so they tried killing him at least a dozen times. Once he was held for two weeks, and [the druid ruler] was holding him to kill him.”
But the chieftan instead spared Patrick and even gave him money to build his first church. For the rest of his life, Patrick preached about Jesus Christ, spread Christianity across the British Isles, and spoke out against slavery. Some historians even call him the world’s first abolitionist!
The Roman Catholic Church made him a saint in 664 A.D.
“It wasn’t until 1846, when there was a potato famine in Ireland, and millions of Irish Catholics came to America,” Federer says. “The Irish population went from two percent to 20 percent in just a decade. Half of New York City was now Roman Catholic Irish! The same thing happened in Boston, and there was an anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, anti-Irish backlash.”
“When they had their first parade, it was more of a political statement. In Ireland, it didn’t matter how many of them there were, they didn’t have a voice in Parliament. But in America, when they had their first parade and 15,000 of them showed up, politicians in New York City said, ‘wait a minute, they haven’t decided who to vote for yet,’ so they decided to march with them.”
From here, you know the rest of how St. Patrick’s Day became an iconic American holiday.
I would be remiss, however, if I let the history stop here. There is one more important lesson we can all take away from St. Patrick. He writes the following in his “Confessio“
Therefore be amazed, you great and small who fear God, and you men of God, eloquent speakers, listen and contemplate. Who was it summoned me, a fool, from the midst of those who appear wise and learned in the law and powerful in rhetoric and in all things? Me, truly wretched in this world, he inspired before others that I could be– if I would– such a one who, with fear and reverence, and faithfully, without complaint, would come to the people to whom the love of Christ brought me and gave me in my lifetime, if I should be worthy, to serve them truly and with humility.
Today, as you wear your green shirts, eat green food and drink green beer; remember the lesson of St. Patrck–trust in God’s purpose for your life, never let doubts control your thoughts, keep your integrity in all things, and take on the humble service of God!