St. Patrick's Day is an Irish celebration of all things green. It is the ancient commemoration of the birth of Ireland's favorite son, and an opportunity for nonconformists to drink green beer.
Or not. Almost everything in the previous paragraph is wrong, except for the part about green beer.
First of all, St. Patrick's Day is not really an Irish celebration. Well, it is now, but it didn't start in Ireland. It started in Boston in 1737, when Irish immigrants marched in protest over social conditions. The first real celebration of Irish heritage took place in New York City in 1762, when Irish soldiers in the British army joined local Irish immigrants in an all-Irish parade.
And what's with the color green? St. Patrick's color was blue, or at least a shade of blue that has been associated with Patrick from very early times and is still used in Irish state symbols. The color green represented the Irish separatist movement and came in time to represent the entire country. (And, after all, it is the Emerald Island.)
Then St. Patrick's Day does not commemorate the birth of the saint, but his death. Patrick probably died in the fifth century, though historians disagree about whether it was in the middle of the century or closer to its end.
And finally, while Patrick is Ireland's patron saint, he is not her favorite son. Patrick was not Irish but a Roman Britain, born to a church deacon and his wife. The story of how he came to be associated with Ireland is a fascinating one.
When he was sixteen, Patrick was kidnapped by Irish pirates, from his home in Scotland or Whales. He was taken to Ireland and sold to a Druid tribal chieftain as a slave. Patrick was forced to herd the chieftain's pigs.
In the midst of squalor and poverty, the young man began to think about and talk to God. In spite of his upbringing, he had not been a follower of Jesus prior to his captivity. In Ireland that changed. In his Confessions, one of only two surviving works by Patrick, he wrote:
I was sixteen and knew not the true God, but in a strange land the Lord opened my unbelieving eyes, and I was converted.
Patrick began to change. His fear and hatred were replaced by a confidence in God, and a serenity he had not known before. When, six years into his life of slavery, he saw a chance to escape, he took it. He convinced a ship's captain to transport him back to his native land. His family was overjoyed to see him, and he finally felt safe again. He was done with Ireland forever.
Or so he thought. There were a number of things that changed his mind, but chief among them was a dream. In his dream, a man coming from Ireland gave him a letter, imploring him to return and live among the Irish people as a messenger of the gospel of God.
Over the strong objections of family, Patrick returned to Ireland as a missionary. People responded to the former slave's message of love and justice and, by the time of his death, Patrick had baptized thousands of people into the Christian faith and left an indelible mark on Ireland.
The servant of God was also a champion of the people. Besides his Confessions, his only other extant work is a withering letter sent to King Coroticus to protest abuses against the Irish people. It was that protest, some historians believe, that landed him in prison.
Patrick was not only a great man, he was a humble one. He described himself as
a dumb stone, lying squashed in the mud; the Mighty and Merciful God came, dug me out and set me on top of the wall..
The real Patrick was not the silly little leprechaun of our festivities, but the daring yet humble missionary whose faith in God made him a giant of the church.