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Fascinating St. Patrick’s Day Facts You Probably Didn’t Know

The day we associate with drinking massive amounts of beer actually started as a religious holiday and—spoiler alert—St. Patrick wasn't even Irish!

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St. Patrick wasn’t Irish

Although Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland, he was actually born in Roman-occupied Britain in the fourth century to wealthy parents who might have converted to the Christian faith for the tax break.

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He didn’t go to Ireland by choice

The young Patrick was kidnapped and sold into slavery by Irish raiders who robbed his family home when he was only 16 years old. Most historians think the young Patrick was enslaved in County Mayo near Killala where he would have done the solitary work of tending to sheep. It was here, in forced exile, that he reclaimed the Christian faith he was born into.

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St. Patrick did not chase snakes out of Ireland

St. Patrick did convert many pagans to Christianity, but the story of his driving all the snakes out of Ireland during his 40-day fast on a hilltop is bunk. ­Biologists think the reason Ireland is snake-free today is that the reptiles never migrated to the island in the first place. The legend of the snakes is probably just a metaphor for St. Patrick’s having driven evil out of Ireland.

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St. Patrick invented the Celtic cross

Many Irish still practiced a nature-based religion and St. Patrick used the symbols of their traditional faith, like the sun that he overlaid on the cross, to teach them about their new Christian one. He also used the symbol of fire to start the practice of celebrating Easter with bonfires.

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St. Patrick is not an official saint

St. Patrick’s Day falls on the anniversary of Patrick’s death on March 17 in the fifth century. His followers in Ireland began to celebrate his feast day on that day during the ninth and 10th centuries, even though he was never formally canonized by a pope.

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You used to celebrate the day in church

Since St. Patrick’s Day historically falls during the Christian holy month of Lent, people would go to morning mass before afternoon and evening festivities. And, because many Christians fast from red meat and sometimes alcohol, Christian leaders still give special dispensation to enjoy corned beef and Guinness just for the day.

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The original colour for St. Patrick’s Day was blue

St. Patrick is actually associated with the colour blue, and his priestly vestments are painted that hue in many portraits of him. But after the Order of St. Patrick chose green as their official colour, people celebrate by “the wearing of the green.”

St. Augustine, Florida, USA city hall and Alcazar Courtyard.Sean Pavone/Shutterstock

The first parade wasn’t in New York or Boston

Boston and New York both claim to have hosted the first St. Patrick’s Day Parade in the 1700s (though they quibble over the definition of a parade). That said, the first procession honouring the Irish saint may have taken place in 1601 when residents of the Spanish-speaking settlement of ­St. Augustine, Florida, marched through the streets in recognition of St. ­Patrick—or San Patricio, in this case—whom they considered the official protector of their fields of maize.

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One city has a week-long celebration

Big cities try to claim bragging rights for the day’s top celebrations, but they aren’t the only parties in town. Montserrat, aka the Emerald Isle of the Caribbean, throws a St. Patrick’s Festival that lasts more than a week.

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Chicago goes all green

In 1962, the Chicago Plumbers Union Local 130 realized that the dye they used to locate leaks in buildings could double as an eco-friendly decoration. The Windy City has been dyeing the Chicago River green for the holiday ever since. The 40 pounds of dye can linger in the water for up to a few days, depending on the wind.

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IRELAND ST PATRICKS DAY, DUBLIN, IrelandJohn Cogill/AP/Shutterstock

The first parade in Belfast was big

More than 10,000 Catholics took to the streets of Belfast in 1998 to hold the first St. Patrick’s Day Parade in the long-divided Northern Ireland city. In hope of encouraging Protestant involvement, the parade organizer told the fife-and-drum bands not to play any anti-British music.

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Pork was the original meal for this holiday

Corned beef and cabbage is the quintessential St. Patrick’s meal, right? Actually, in pre-famine Ireland, beef was a rare ­delicacy—the commoners typically ate pork. But when Irish immigrants came to the United States, they reportedly noticed their Jewish neighbours and fellow immigrants buying brisket from kosher butchers and followed suit.

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You used to not be allowed to buy beer on St. Patrick’s Day

St. Patrick’s Day used to be a solemn commemoration of the day he died. In 1927, Irish officials even banned the sale of alcohol on his name day (as well as on Christmas and Good Friday), partly at the insistence of the Catholic Church. Until the early 1960s, one of the only places you could buy a beer in Ireland on St. Patrick’s Day was the well-­attended Royal Dublin Dog Show. Commercial pressure led to the lifting of the ban in 1960.

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Now it’s one of the booziest holidays

March 17 ranks fourth on the list of booziest holidays in North America, behind New Year’s Eve, Christmas, and (in the U.S., at least) the Fourth of July. The drink of choice around the world: Guinness. Revellers are expected to down 13 million pints of it this St. Patrick’s Day.

Next, check out the best things to do in Ireland off the beaten path.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published on Reader's Digest