It’s said that everyone’s Irish on St. Patrick’s Day — even if that’s true, not everyone celebrates March 17 as if they were from Ireland. There are many “traditions” that are about as Irish as a shamrock shake.
For one, St. Patrick’s Day has always been a bigger affair in America than in Ireland. By the time Ireland held its inaugural parade in honor of its patron saint in 1901, New York City had already hosted 141 annual marches. The 1901 parade wasn’t even government-sanctioned — it wasn’t until 1995 that the Irish government held its first parade in an effort to boost tourism.
If you want to celebrate March 17 like the Irish do, here are a few things to keep in mind.
Right off the bat, consider abstaining from alcohol. No, seriously.
St. Patrick’s Day is a holy day of obligation for Irish Roman Catholics — meaning they’re obligated to go to Mass. Because of that, and the fact that March 17 falls in the Christian season of Lent — a time of somber reflection — the sale of alcohol was banned on that day, along with Good Friday and Christmas.
The St. Patrick’s Day prohibition was lifted by the Irish government in 1961, but many Irish people still observe that tradition to this day.
As for food, don’t even think about touching corned beef. Corned beef was created by Irish immigrants in America to preserve cheap cuts of beef, but they never ate it back home.
So what should you put on the menu? A typical feast features a leg of lamb with rosemary, shepherd’s pie, and meat or fish pies. Don’t forget the soda bread either!
Speaking of soda bread, there’s one more tradition to uphold and that’s “letting the devil” out of the bread. Don’t worry, there’s no exorcism necessary — it actually refers to cutting a cross in the top of the loaf before putting it into the oven. Practically speaking this is to let steam out of the bread but the superstition became so widespread that many in America still observe it.
What about parties? The Irish sure know how to have a good time, but a party by American standards wasn’t seen throughout Ireland until relatively recently. When people got back home from Mass on March 17, and after they finished their food, they performed traditional Irish songs and dances for hours on end. Part of this celebration was also to recall Irish myths and stories during times when the Irish language was prohibited by British monarchs.
The parties are still observed to this day with many holding céil’s, the Gaelic word for social gatherings that feature plenty of music and dancing. Feel free to play traditional music — the Chieftains or the High Kings are good bets — or more modern tunes by The Saw Doctors or Flogging Molly.
One stereotypical “tradition” that holds up is the wearing of the shamrock. Shamrocks are often worn by the Irish at Mass on St. Patrick’s Day and blessed by priests. As the urban legend goes, St. Patrick himself used the three-leaf clover to describe the Catholic teaching of the Holy Trinity (the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit).
Don’t wear much green other than that, though. Again, St. Patrick’s Day started off as a holy day in Ireland and green doesn’t make the best church clothes.
One thing you can be sure works on either side of the Atlantic: saying “Erin go Bragh,” which means “Ireland Forever.”