Holiday History: Exploring St. Patrick’s Day

People gather along the Chicago River Walk each year to see the annual tradition of dying the water green for St. Patrick's Day.
People gather along the Chicago River Walk each year to see the annual tradition of dying the water green for St. Patrick's Day.

Did you know the first St. Patrick’s Day parade in what is now the United States took place in St. Augustine, Florida?

Today is St. Patrick’s Day—the first holiday we’re exploring in our new Holiday History series. The day honors the man credited with bringing Christianity to Ireland, but many today celebrate it with green beer, “Kiss Me I’m Irish” pins and, in many communities, parades.

You might think the first St. Patrick’s Day parade was held in a New York or a Boston, since those cities have large Irish-heritage communities. Indeed, there are records of celebrations in New York and Boston as far back as the 1700s.

But the very first was held much earlier, in 1601, in St. Augustine. It was apparently organized by Padre Ricardo Artur, the priest there at the time. He was born Richard Arthur and had been an Irish solider before becoming a priest.

J. Michael Francis, a history professor at the University of South Florida, rediscovered the city of St. Augustine’s role just a few years ago. Francis is an expert on Spain’s colonies in the Americas, and Florida was a Spanish colony at the time of the first parade. Francis was doing research at archives in Spain when he came across a reference to San Patricio, that is, St. Patrick.

There is actually a mention of a celebration of St. Patrick a year earlier, but it was in 1601 that the first procession was held. The observances don’t last long, though. None are recorded after Padre Artur’s death.

It should not be a surprise that St. Patrick’s Day has become beloved as a symbol of Irish culture, as Patrick is beloved in Ireland.

As with most historical figures who lived more than 15 centuries ago, exact details on the real life of Patrick are mostly a mystery. He was likely born in Britain and survived at least one harrowing experience in slavery as a young man, during which time his belief in God began to flourish. He escaped to his freedom and, eventually, felt the call to bring the gospel to the people of Ireland.

While there was likely some Christian worship in Ireland before the arrival of Patrick, he is credited with bringing many people to the faith. He baptized thousands and ordained priests. In many cases, people were converted despite opposition from family members or the community. Tradition names him as the first Bishop of Armagh.

Although it is probably a myth, Patrick is said to have used the three leaves of the shamrock to illustrate the Trinity, the Christian concept of God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit all as one.

St. Patrick’s Day is on March 17 because tradition says it’s the day he died. For centuries, it was observed more as a religious feast day than the way our current celebrations are held.

As for the city of St. Augustine, it did revive the practice of St. Patrick’s Day parades after nearly 400 years. Sadly, both last year and this year organizers had to cancel the parade because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but St. Augustine is looking forward to its return in 2022.

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