A St. Patrick’s Day Q&A: the real saint, leprechaun lore and how to drown a shamrock

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Soon, shamrocks will be sprouting and green beer will be flowing everywhere in celebration of St. Patrick’s Day on Tuesday, March 17. It’s a day that many will celebrate with pub crawls, parades, green socks and silly hats.

Long before St. Patrick’s Day was a holiday for revelry, it was a feast day in the Catholic church. The modern version of the holiday is celebrated beyond the United States, especially in countries with large Irish populations.

How much do you know about the origins of the holiday? Do you secretly wonder if there really was a St. Patrick, and do you know how to make a proper Irish toast?

How will you celebrate St. Patrick’s Day? Tell us your plans in the comments.

Wonder no more; here’s everything you need to know about the origins¬† and lore surrounding St. Patrick’s Day.

Q. What is St. Patrick’s Day?

A. It’s a global celebration of Irish culture on or around March 17. It particularly remembers St Patrick, one of Ireland’s patron saints, who is credited with spreading Christianity in Ireland during the fifth century. The anniversary of St. Patrick’s death on March 17 became a feast day in the Catholic Church.

Q. What’s the truth about his life? Did he really drive the snakes out of Ireland?

A: The snakes story is a legend, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica’s website. Here’s part of the entry: “Born in Roman Britain in the late 4th century, he was kidnapped at the age of 16 and taken to Ireland as a slave. He escaped but returned about 432 to convert the Irish to Christianity. By the time of his death on March 17, 461, he had established monasteries, churches, and schools. Many legends grew up around him–for example, that he drove the snakes out of Ireland and used the shamrock to explain the Trinity. Ireland came to celebrate his day with religious services and feasts.”

Q. How did the holiday become so popular in this country?

A: Irish immigrants to the United States turned St. Patrick’s Day into secular celebration of all things Irish. Boston held its first St. Patrick’s Day parade in 1737, followed by New York City in 1762. Chicago has dyed its river green to mark the holiday since the 1960s.

Q: Does the rest of the world celebrate it?

A: Yes, especially in countries with large Irish populations, such as Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom.

Q. What are some good things to eat on this holiday?

A. Feast on Irish brown bread, Irish stew and potato soup. Other traditional Irish foods include bangers and mash, bacon (boiled ham) and cabbage, stew, Shepherd’s Pie, potato bread and black pudding.

Q. Why are there shamrocks everywhere I look?

A. The most common St. Patrick’s Day symbol is the shamrock. The shamrock is the leaf of the clover plant and a symbol of the Holy Trinity. According to legend, St. Patrick used the shamrock to explain the Holy Trinity to pagans. “The wearing of the green” refers to the custom of wearing green clothes or a shamrock, the national flower of Ireland, in your lapel.

Q. What’s “drowning the shamrock”?

A. That’s the custom of putting the shamrock that’s been worn on the lapel on St. Patrick’s Day into the last drink of the night.

Q. What’s a leprechaun?

A. As part of Irish mythology and folklore, leprechauns are a kind of fairy. They are mischievous, intelligent folk who are harmless, although they sometimes play tricks on humans. They also play tin whistles, fiddles and other Irish traditional instruments. It is said that every leprechaun has a pot of gold, hidden deep in the Irish countryside. To protect the leprechaun’s pot of gold, the Irish fairies gave them magical powers to grant three wishes or to vanish into thin air if captured by a human.

Q. What’s a good St. Patrick’s Day toast?

A. “May the roof above us never fall in, and may we friends beneath it never fall out.”

Q. What does “erin go bragh” mean?

A. “Ireland forever” in Gaelic, the traditional language of Ireland.

Q. I want to impress my friends with some other Gaelic phrases. What can I learn in 5 minutes?

A: Try “slainte” (good health or cheers!), or “beannachtai na feile padraig oraibh” (St. Patrick’s Day blessing upon you!)

Q. Got any suggestions for traditional Irish music I can add to my iPod?

A. Celtic, folk and traditional Irish pub songs will help get you in the St. Patrick’s Day spirit! Look for compilation CDs of traditional Irish songs or download some individual songs by The Chieftains, The Dubliners or other Irish bands.

How will you celebrate St. Patrick’s Day? Tell us your plans in the comments.

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