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History and Traditions of St. Patrick's Day

Celebrated in Ireland for more than 1,000 years, St. Patrick's Day honors that country's patron saint. A man who lived in the 5th Century A.D., St. Patrick is said to have been guided by the voice of God. Taken from his home at age 16 by Irish raiders, he escaped imprisonment, and history states St. Patrick returned to Ireland as a missionary, set on converting the Irish to Christianity. Much of his life is a mystery. Many historians believe that some of the acts he performed have been greatly exaggerated such as banishing snakes from Ireland. Nonetheless, he has became a Irish folk hero and religious icon all rolled into one, celebrated as both a liturgical and secular holiday. St. Patrick's Day marks his death on March 17, 460 A.D.

In the United States, the celebration of St. Patrick's Day is believed to have begun in the 18th century but the tradition was not started by Americans. The first parade on American soil occurred on March 17, 1762, as Irish members of the English army paraded through New York City, celebrating their heritage and beliefs. During the next century as Irish immigration increased, Irish organizations were formed, such as the Ancient Order of Hibernians. In 1848, the Irish groups joined together to form a much larger New York City St. Patrick's Day parade. Today, the parade through the streets of New York is considered the oldest civilian parade in the United States. Major cities with large Irish populations such as Philadelphia, Chicago and Savannah hold their own annual parades as well as number of smaller towns throughout the country.

Parades aren't the only way St. Patrick's Day is celebrated. There are different kinds of celebrations place all across the country on St. Patrick's Day. In Chicago, the Chicago River is dyed green for several hours on March 17th. (They used to do it for several days but cut it short out of respect for the environment.) In and around Philadelphia, candy stores and markets peddle a confection known as "Irish Potatoes." These tiny cinnamon-coated cream cheese and coconut delights have become a St. Patrick's tradition in this part of the country.

Bars and restaurants have embraced the holiday as well. Many restaurants serve the traditional Irish-American favorite – corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick's Day and it is usually paired with boiled potatoes and Irish soda bread. Green beer and pints of Guinness, and an occasional shot of Jamieson, generously flow in bars across the country.

At home, Irish-American likely serve corned beef as well. Many families celebrate by decorating their home with green trimmings, leprechauns and lucky four-leaf clovers. Some throw parties for both their Irish and non-Irish friends while others present gifts to one another, including items that bear traditional claddaghs, shamrocks, the colors of the Irish flag and other Irish icons.