It’s Saint Patrick’s Day! USA TODAY answers 7 questions about the holiday you may have.
1. Who was St. Patrick?
St. Patrick was not actually Irish. He was a nobleman born in about 400 A.D. in Britain who was kidnapped by Irish pirates at the age of 16. Patrick was born into a religious family, but was an atheist early in his life. While enslaved in Ireland he discovered his faith and after 17 years as a slave, escaped Ireland and found his way home. He later returned to Ireland as a missionary.
It’s unclear if St. Patrick did in fact die in Ireland, but March 17 is widely believed to be the day of his death, according to Freeman, author of a book about his life.
2. Green River in Chicago is a family affair:
Another unique tradition that has grown in popularity every year is the annual dyeing of the Chicago River for St. Patrick’s Day. The Butler and Rowan family clans are responsible for turning the murky water bright green, and they’ve done it for more than 50 years.
The only way to become part of the six-person boat crew is to be related by blood or marriage to either Mike Butler or Tom Rowan, according to The Chicago Tribune. Each year, the crew shakes an orange powder — a top secret recipe — into the Chicago River from a sifter and it stays green for about five hours.
Though it started as a religious holiday in Ireland, Saint Patrick’s became a celebratory affair because of Irish Americans, according to Timothy Meagher, a history professor at Catholic University in D.C. In the United States, St. Patrick’s Day was first celebrated with banquets at elite clubs in Boston, Philadelphia, New York, Charleston, S.C., and Savannah, Ga., Meagher said.
New York City hosted the first St. Patrick’s Day parade in 1762, and by the mid-19th century parades were common, he said. “The parades are a statement of showing our colors, showing our numbers, showing that we are powerful and important,” Meagher said of the role of parades in celebrating Irish-American identity.
Legend has it that St. Patrick used the three-leaved shamrock to explain the Christian Holy Trinity. But Freeman said, “There’s no evidence St. Patrick ever did that.”
Traditions as early as the 17th century incorporated the plant, said Mike Cronin, author of Wearing the Green: A History of St. Patrick’s Day. People wore shamrocks on their coats and closed the day by “drowning the shamrock” — placing it in a glass of whiskey before drinking, Cronin said.
5. Gobs and gobs of Guinness:
On a typical day, Americans drink about 600,000 pints of the Dublin-based beer. But on St. Patrick’s Day, about 3 million pints of Guinness are downed, according to Guinness in an email to USA TODAY Network. The Irish stout is the drink of choice on St. Patrick’s Day.
Planning on drinking a pint on Monday? Tips from Guinness on the perfect pour: Tilt the glass at 45 degrees when pouring until it is three-quarters full, then let the beer settle before filling the glass completely to the top.
Today’s leprechauns, usually rosy-cheeked, boozy little men in green attire, come from Irish folklore. The first recorded mention of a leprechaun goes back to the 8th century, coming from the word luchorpán, meaning “little body” to describe water spirits, according to John and Caitlin Matthews in The Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures.
Another possible origin is the Irish god Lugh, whose Welch variant is known as one of the “Three Golden Shoemakers.”
7. Corned beef and cabbage
Corned beef and cabbage is more American than Irish, though it has remained as a classic St. Patrick’s Day meal.
Irish Americans in the 19th century were mostly poor and since most affordable meat available was corned beef it became the usual table fare for the occasion.
And cabbage? “It’s a spring vegetable and it’s cheap,” Cronin said.
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