St. Patrick is the Catholic Patron Saint of Ireland, and St. Patrick's Day began as a religious celebration. Catholic saints have their own feast days, with March 17 being the feast of St. Patrick. In America, St. Patrick's day is a celebration of all things Irish, but the true meaning of St. Patrick's day in Ireland is primarily religious. However, St. Patrick and his feast does have special meaning to the Irish.
Patrick was born in England in 387 A.D. As a boy, he was forcibly brought to Ireland as a slave. Life was horrible for him in captivity, and Patrick turned to God. He escaped his captors several years later and returned to England. Once back in his homeland, he heard the voice of God, who told him that he must return to Ireland and help the Irish turn to Christianity. Through much opposition, he was able to spread the gospel and worked miracles in Ireland for 40 years.
At first, the works of Patrick were forgotten after his death, but legend slowly began to grow around him. The tale was that he drove the snakes out of Ireland. In actuality, there were never any snakes in Ireland, as the freezing ocean that surrounds it kept snakes from migrating to the country. The legend arises from the snake's symbolic meaning in Christian lore, where the snake represented evil and the devil. The tale symbolizes Patrick driving paganism from Ireland by converting people to Christianity.
Patrick was ordained as a saint, and the celebration of his feast day began in Ireland in the 1600s. His feast day, March 17, falls in the midst of Lent. During Lent, eating meat was prohibited for Catholics in Ireland. However, an exception was made on St. Patrick's Day. The Irish would celebrate St. Patrick's feast by drinking and eating Irish bacon and cabbage.
St. Patrick's day as it is now celebrated began with Irish soldiers in America. They used the day to connect with their countrymen and remember their homeland. The first St. Patrick's Day parade happened in 1737 in Boston, Massachusetts. These parades did not appear in Ireland until the 1840s and were organized by Temperance organizations trying to stop the Irish from drinking on St. Patrick's feast day.
Today, St. Patrick's Day is used by Ireland to draw the attention of the world. The meaning has changed to a sense of national pride. A weeklong celebration of St. Patrick is held each year in Dublin with a fireworks display called "Skyfest." To celebrate, many of the Irish don a bundle of shamrocks pinned to their shirts or hats. Children wear green, orange and white badges, and many girls wear green hair ribbons.