For some, March 17 is just another day bespattered with the chaos of life- traffic, bills, appointments. For others, it is a collection of bad childhood memories of being pinched and forced to eat boiled cabbage and corned beef. St. Patrick’s Day, being one of the humblest holidays, has a tendency to sneak up on most of us unaware and to bring with it images of leprechauns and shamrocks and pots of gold. “Oh!” they say. “It’s Saint Patrick’s Day! Find something green! Hurry! Someone will pinch you!”

Many who celebrate this unique day are unaware of its history. Many do not know that the true story of St. Patrick, patron saint of Ireland, or of the embellished legends that began with little more than folklore and have developed uninterrupted for more than a millennium. Many images associated with St. Patrick and the celebration of his legacy came into being only after hundreds of years of rumors obscured the reality.

Maewyn Succat was born in Scotland around 385 A.D. to wealthy Roman-British parents.

Patricius was his Romanicized name, which later became “Patrick.” When he was in his early teens, he was kidnapped and sold into slavery in Ireland. He was imprisoned there for about six years, forced to tend sheep. In his intense fear and loneliness, Patrick began praying to God, and through the course of his imprisonment, he developed a life-altering determination to serve his God. One day, he escaped and fled to England, then to France where he studied to be a priest. Led by what he felt was a divine vision of Irish people asking for his help, he returned to the land of his imprisonment to bring Christianity to the pagan Irish.

Patrick was a noteworthy evangelist, gaining many followers. He died about 461 A.D. on March 17, which has since been celebrated as the feast day of St. Patrick. Although there were many other missions to Ireland that were much more successful and more worthy of the credit, Patrick has become the icon of the Irish conversion to Christianity.

The Roman Catholic Church has celebrated Patrick’s saint day for hundreds of years as it has hundreds of other saints. Around 1600, the day was made a holy day of obligation for Catholics in Ireland. But this simple and accurate account of a good man has been extended by legend and tradition. Patrick and his legacy have become as celebrated by the secular world as an occasion of Irish culture and tradition as they have been by the Catholic community. It is a chance for everyone to “be Irish for a day.” In Ireland, since 1903, the holiday is a public one as well as a religious one. Ireland has used the opportunity to raise global awareness of the Irish community and its traditions. In 1996, the first St. Patrick’s Festival was held in Dublin, Ireland. The successful, annual event has evolved into a week-long festival.

Many symbols and legends have been associated with the holiday. The first that comes to mind, of course, is the shamrock. Legend holds that Patrick used the three leaf plant to explain to the Trinity to unbelievers. He would explain to them that the Trinity is three parts, but one whole. In reality, however, the shamrock had long been a symbol of the triple goddess Brigit.

Perhaps it was the shamrock legend that was responsible for substituting the color green for blue, which was the original color associated with the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day. Also associated with this unique holiday is the leprechaun. This Celtic fairy was originally thought to be a tiny creature, mischievous and cranky, whose job it was to guard the proverbial treasure hidden at the end of the rainbow. The friendly leprechaun images that we entertain today are merely a product of Hollywood.

The St. Patrick’s Day tradition came to America in 1737 in Boston. The first St. Patrick’s Day parade was held in New York City in 1766. Every year, the Chicago River is dyed green in celebration of the holiday. This tradition began in 1962 when pollution-control workers used green dye to trace illegal sewage dumped into the river. Each year, 40 pounds of vegetable dye turns the river green for about a week. Today, more than a hundred major cities hold parades in honor of St. Patrick. Today, St. Patrick’s Day is celebrate around the world. Parades are held in Dublin, New York, Birmingham, London, Paris, Rome, Moscow, Beijing, Hong Kong, and Singtapore. The most common tradition in America, of course, is the wearing of green, and the pinching of anyone who has carelessly forgotten the luckiest day of the year. Don’t forget your shamrock!