How St. Patrick's Day became a popular holiday in America

The holiday has evolved from its solemn origins in Ireland to being a powerful showcase for Irish culture in America.

Long before green rivers and bar crawls, St. Patrick’s Day was a holy occasion and one that morphed into a political movement for a new immigrant class in America.

Honoring the patron saint

"It's a funny thing, St. Patrick's Day — it has kind of evolved over time," said Elizabeth Stack, executive director of the Irish American Heritage Museum in Albany, New York.

The holiday honors the patron saint of Ireland, St. Patrick, who lived during the 5th century. Patrick was brought from Britain to Ireland as a slave at the age of 16 and then worked in captivity for six years before returning home to his family.

Legend has it that Patrick had dreams of the Irish people, who were Celtic pagans at the time, crying and begging him to come back to Ireland to "save their souls." After becoming a priest, Patrick indeed returned and began converting the Irish into Christians.

According to Stack, Patrick even converted the high king of Ireland by using the shamrock to illustrate the holy trinity, with the three leaves representing the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. Because of this, the shamrock has been associated with St. Patrick.

LEARN: The true story behind shamrocks and other Irish symbols

"He's also given credit for driving snakes out of Ireland, which people now say is just a symbol that he drove out paganism, not actual snakes," Stack said.

Patrick died in the year A.D. 461 on March 17.

Holy origins

In the centuries that followed, the day of St. Patrick’s passing became a holiday or ‘feast day’ in the Christian calendar.

"It would have been what's called a holy day of obligation," Stack said.

"There would have been mass, which is still a large part of St. Patrick's Day celebrations at home in Ireland, and it's usually in the middle of Lent, so people are on their Lenten fast. But when I was growing up at home in Ireland, that was the day that you could break your fast."

According to Stack, St. Patrick’s Day was largely a quiet day, when businesses were closed and parents stayed home with their families.

Then in the 18th and 19th centuries, St. Patrick’s Day crossed the Atlantic, it began to experience an evolution — particularly one involving a parade.

Irish American immigrants

"The St. Patrick's Day parade started in New York in 1762 with Irish members of the British Army," Stack said. "This is pre-revolution, and it was an opportunity for them at the time to kind of commiserate and memorialize their homelands."

According to Stack, many of the Irish people were conflicted when they were fighting for the British Army, as they were fighting for their own independence from the British at the same time.

Then in the 19th century, after the U.S. became an independent nation, Irish immigrants began arriving in the U.S, escaping the Great Hunger and other waves of famines in Ireland. In doing so, they brought along their traditions, such as St. Patrick’s Day.

According to Stack, Irish Americans in New York City began incorporating the parade as part of their St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, and they used it to showcase Irish immigrants’ contributions to American society.

"You had parades of men who were policemen and in the Army and the Navy and sanitation marching up Fifth Avenue," Stack said. "It was a demonstration of their voting power as an immigrant group, but also it showed their willingness to serve and to be part of the fabric of American political and city life."

An evolving holiday

Apart from politics, St. Patrick’s Day parades and other forms of celebration in the U.S. helped Irish Americans think of their homeland while in their new home.

"It was a great way of connecting for those who had never visited Ireland but knew they were of Irish heritage," Stack said.

While many aspects of St. Patrick’s Day allowed Irish immigrants and their descendants the chance to remember Ireland, it also gave way to new traditions for Irish Americans.

"For instance, we in Ireland, we don't eat corned beef and cabbage," she said. "We would eat bacon and cabbage, but it was difficult to get bacon allegedly here in the 19th century. A lot of the butchers in some of the cities were Jewish people, so they wouldn't handle pig."

"But also corned beef was a very cheap meat, which was ideal for immigrants in working-class conditions in tenements in the city because it was a preserved cured meat," she added. "It was cheap and easy to get, so this corned beef and cabbage idea really took hold here."

Other St. Patrick’s Day traditions that are well known in the U.S. aren’t reflected back in Ireland.

"We don't really drink the beer green," Stack laughed. "I think Irish people would kill you for adulterating their beer with food coloring."

"And we don't die our rivers green."

Everybody is Irish

St. Patrick’s Day has undergone a number of transformations since the days of the patron saint more than 1500 years ago.

One of those transformations is the growing popularity of the holiday, the traditions of which are celebrated by people of all backgrounds.

"On St. Patrick's Day, everybody is Irish," Stack said.