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St. Patrick’s Day: History, Traditions, and Sober Fun

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St. Patrick’s Day… when we were kids we celebrated it by wearing green (and pinching anyone who forgot to wear green), making shamrock-related crafts at school, and, at least in my family, eating delicious corned beef since it was always on sale this time of year.  As we got older, it became more and more associated with green beer and many other Irish-themed liquor concoctions.  Either way, we really lost touch of the real reasons for the holiday.  In recovery and sobriety, we have the opportunity to embrace some of the real spirit behind St. Patrick’s Day, and celebrate it in (still fun) but sober ways.

I just heard that New York City is holding a special Sober St. Patrick’s Day event, sponsored by Hazelden treatment center.  Read more about it here, but I love that it is a “a fun and family-friendly way to reclaim the true spirit and beauty of the day through the best of Irish music, dance and comedy.”

When preparing to write this blog post, I started doing a little research on the history behind St. Patrick’s Day as well as the traditions.  As we have been doing a lot to promote diversity and cultural awareness at Austin Recovery (see our other Diversity themed blog posts here), I wanted to share the cultural significance of this holiday as well.  Here is a nice summary from AmericanGreetings.com:

Origins

Everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day! But how did this celebration of green come about? The origin of St. Patrick’s Day was established as a religious feast day in honor of the death of St. Patrick, Ireland’s patron saint. Traditionally St. Patrick’s Day, observed on March 17th, is celebrated in Ireland and in many Irish communities throughout the world. The St. Patrick’s Day celebration traditionally includes an Irish mass in the morning and a celebration of traditional Irish food and dance throughout the day.  Saint Patrick’s Day has come to be associated with everything Irish. To those who celebrate its intended meaning, St. Patrick’s Day is a traditional day for spiritual renewal and offering prayers for missionaries worldwide. Most Irish citizens attend mass followed by an evening of traditional Irish food and drink.

About St. Patrick

St. Patrick was the patron saint and national apostle of Ireland who is credited with bringing Christianity to Ireland. St. Patrick is believed to have been born in the late fourth century. He is most known for driving the snakes out of Ireland; although that is probably more symbolic of him putting an end to pagan practices involving snakes. St. Patrick did however superimpose a sun, a powerful Irish symbol, onto the Christian cross to create what is known today as the Celtic cross.

Traditions

There are many Irish traditions people follow to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and other Irish occasions, although not all of them are historically accurate. Some of the Irish customs people are more familiar with include wearing green, eating Irish food and drinking beer. Actually wearing green is strictly a U.S. custom, as the color green is considered unlucky in Ireland. Green is connected to the old green flag and a time when Ireland was not free. Americans have embraced their own St. Patrick’s Day tradition of drinking large amounts of Irish beer or green beer, which has no real historical Irish references at all. Another new St. Patrick’s Day tradition started by school children is pinching classmates who don’t wear green on St. Patrick’s Day. This tradition has grown with the times, and even if you aren’t a school child, beware on St. Patrick’s Day if you aren’t wearing green!

Irish Symbols

Leprechauns: As a St. Patrick’s Day symbol, the leprechaun is a smiling, merry little elf. However, legend tells us that leprechauns are always grumpy, untrustworthy and very tricky. Leprechauns are believed to be little old men who make shoes for fairies and are usually about two feet tall. The legend says that if you catch a leprechaun, you can force them to tell you where they hid their pot of gold.

Shamrocks: According to Irish legend, St. Patrick chose a three leaved clover or shamrock as a symbol of the church’s Holy Trinity because of its three leaflets bound by a common stalk. He used the tri-leaved plant to help illustrate the idea of the holy trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. A shamrock is not a four leaf clover, contrary to popular belief. When a four leaf clover is found it is said to represent God’s grace. The good luck attached with the four leaf clover predates Christianity in Ireland back to the ancient Druid priests.

The Claddagh Ring: The Claddagh Ring features two cupped hands holding a heart with a crown on top. It has been the traditional wedding ring of the Irish since the 17th century. For love, the heart is worn. In friendship, the hands are worn. And, in loyalty and lasting fidelity, the crown is worn. If the ring is worn on the right hand, with crown and heart facing out, this symbolizes that the wearer’s heart is yet to be won. While dating and under love’s spell it is worn with heart and crown facing inwards (still on the right hand.) Wearing the ring on the left hand, with the crown and heart facing inwards, signifies that your love has been given to one and only one, through marriage.

Corned beef and cabbage: Corned beef and cabbage is the traditional meal enjoyed by many on St. Patrick’s Day, but only half of it is truly Irish. Cabbage has long been a staple of the Irish diet, but it was traditionally served with Irish bacon, not corned beef. The corned beef was substituted for bacon by Irish immigrants to the Americas around the turn of the century who could not afford the real thing. They learned about the cheaper alternative from their Jewish neighbors.

So how can I engage in the spirit of St. Patrick’s Day without “drowning the shamrock?” Here are just a few suggestions:

  • Wear green to get into the spirit!
  • Make an Irish meal, like Corned Beef and Cabbage (a great recipe here), or the favorite, a Reuben Sandwich (here’s an easy recipe).
  • Read a story of the history of St. Patrick’s Day for yourself or to your family.  Click here for some resources.
  • Add some traditional (The Chieftains, Planxty) or contemporary (think Flogging Molly, Celtic Woman) Irish music to your mp3 players, Pandora, or Spotify.
  • Be creative! There are all sorts of fun family crafts you can do.  Here are some ideas.
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