Named for the patron saint of Ireland, St. Patrick's Day has quite an origin story. Stories of the man behind the holiday spread shortly after his death in the 400s, leading to a celebration now characterized by lucky charms and artificially colored beverages.
The legends of the Irish
Patricius, born in Roman Britain, brought Christianity to Ireland in the fifth century. Soon after his death on March 17, 461, rumors of his feats — such as driving the snakes out of Ireland or successfully explaining the Trinity with a shamrock — spread across the country. The legend of St. Patrick and his good deeds was born.
Roman Catholics in Ireland first feasted to honor the saint in the 10th century, and the strictly religious celebration continued for hundreds of years. On March 17, 1630, crosses, ribbons and shamrocks were seen all over Ireland when St. Patrick's Day was officially celebrated for the first time.
Crossing the Atlantic
St. Patrick's Day made it to the U.S. in the 18th century, and Irish Americans sang songs, played instruments and spoke in their native tongue as they paraded through the streets of Boston on March 17, 1737. Irish aid societies — such as the Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick and the Hibernian Society — popped up around the U.S. in the following decades, and American support for the holiday grew.
Participation in the societies increased when close to a million Irish immigrants traveled west after the Great Famine in 1845. New York City became a hub of Irish heritage, and the city's societies banded together for the first time in 1848 to host a massive celebration. What became the city's famous St. Patrick's Day Parade started out with civilians marching through the streets — and now boasts more than 150,000 participants.
Parades and festivals now take place in cities across the U.S. Savannah, Georgia, hosts the nation's oldest parade, dating back to 1813. The Windy City famously dyes the Chicago River green, a tradition that started in 1962 when the city's pollution control engineers decided to use green dye to do more than trace rogue sewage discharges. The river was stained green for a week thanks to 100 pounds of vegetable dye; now officials use 40 pounds to dye the river for a few hours.
The end of the rainbow
While rowdy celebrations popped up all over the world, Ireland's remained traditional. St. Patrick's Day had been a religious occasion for hundreds of years, and the yearly closure of pubs on March 17 hindered modern celebrations. That mandate was lifted in the 1970s, and the Irish government decided to promote tourism with a yearly festival starting in the mid-1990s. Now, more than 1 million people travel to Ireland for St. Patrick's Day each year.
Countries around the world celebrate with music, dancing and drinking on March 17, and no matter how you observe it, St. Patrick's Day is a perfect day to enjoy with family and friends.