How Did St. Patrick’s Day Become a Drinking Holiday?

Those who think St. Patrick's Day is just about wearing green and enjoying parties and parades might be surprised to learn about the holiday's origins.

The truth about St. Patrick

St. Patrick is one of the most well-known saints because his special day has become such a cause for celebration, but most people don’t actually know a lot about him. One shocking tidbit: even though he’s so strongly associated with Irish culture and symbolism, he wasn’t actually born in Ireland. In fact, he was born in Roman Britain in the late fourth or early fifth century. (Here are more historical facts that are actually false.) As a boy, he was taken to Ireland as a slave.

Because it was so long ago, some of the details of his life are a bit fuzzy and the story varies depending on the source. But according to many versions, he eventually escaped but would return to Ireland years later and become a priest, and then a bishop.

He was largely credited for bringing Christianity to Ireland and helping to convert many of the country’s residents to the religion.

A man of many myths

For some reason, St. Patrick became a magnet for mythology and creative tales over the years. He was credited with everything from driving the snakes out of Ireland to starting an Easter bonfire that could never be extinguished and still burns somewhere in Ireland to this day. Of course, along the way he also somehow became linked to shamrocks, the colour green, and a host of other symbols and traditions we now associate with St. Patrick’s Day.

By today’s standards, he doesn’t even meet the criteria of sainthood, since he was never actually canonized by a pope. (That process didn’t even start until a few centuries after his death.) So some sticklers for details will claim that he’s not an “official” saint. While they may technically be right, he’s still the patron saint of Ireland and beloved by his adopted country.

How St. Patrick’s Day started

The first observation of St. Patrick’s Day is said to have occurred in the ninth or 10th century. It is observed on March 17 because that was believed to be the date of St. Patrick’s death. It was initially celebrated with reverence and a sort of solemn quiet, and seen more as a religious holiday. Eventually, it became a day that was celebrated with a feast. A few centuries ago, the shift toward more of a fun-filled celebration began to happen. St. Patrick’s Day fell towards the middle of Lent, but Catholics were given a one-day reprieve from the usual fasting and discipline of the season and were allowed to indulge in a wide range of food and drink, including alcohol.

The parties and parades begin

The tradition of celebrating St. Patrick’s Day with the revelry of parties and parades is widely believed to have developed in full force not in Ireland, but in the United States. Irish immigrants were eager to honour their culture and celebrate their national pride. The first St. Patrick’s Day parade in the United States was held in Boston in 1737, and New York City started a parade of its own 25 years later.

Essentially, drinking on St. Patrick’s Day was the result of two combining forces: the day of reprieve from Lenten fasting and the indulgence of partying and celebration. Today, it has become a part of secular culture and a popular tradition, one often celebrated with green beer or Irish whiskey.

Next, check out 12 fun ways to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day this year.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published on Reader's Digest