I grew up in an Irish and Italian neighborhood in the city of Chicago. My mother was of Irish descent and my father was of Polish, German and French ancestry. We were raised Catholic and that included going to Mass every Sunday – no exceptions. During Lent we went to daily Mass during the week. March is always in the season of Lent… at least the first 20 days of it. (March 20 is the earliest that Easter can arrive, although in 2012, Easter is on April 8. See my article on Spring and Autumn for the reason.)
My siblings and I always chose to say we were Irish Catholic, even though we had a German name. More than once I got into heated arguments in grammar school about which was more important, Saint Patrick’s Day (March 17) or Saint Joseph’s Day (March 19). Being Irish, I naturally supported Saint Patrick, but the Italians (and the Polish) said Saint Joseph was the more important of the two. Then they not only told me why, but they told me how they celebrated his feast day.
According to legend, during the Middle Ages, Sicily suffered from a severe drought. The people prayed to their patron, Saint Joseph, to help them in their time of need. They promised that if he would intercede with God for them that they would hold an annual feast in his honor. Well, as legend goes on to say, Saint Joseph answered the prayers of the faithful and God brought rains back to the parched lands. The Sicilian people were true to their word and prepared a large feast in honor of their patron saint. There was a caveat, though. Saint Joseph’s Day is always celebrated on his birthday, March 19, and that date always falls during Lent, the season of fasting from meat (at the time). The Sicilians were not to be thwarted in their efforts. The families brought baked goods and pasta dishes to the Saint Joseph’s Alter (or Table), and all would celebrate and praise Saint Joseph for interceding for them. It didn’t take long for the tradition of the Saint Joseph’s Table to be passed on to all of Italy.
The United States is a nation of immigrants, and as the different peoples would arrive, they would gravitate to areas where other immigrants from their homeland lived. This included the Italian immigrants, too. They shared their camaraderie and language as they learned English, but most of all, they shared their traditions, including honoring Saint Joseph with a feast on his day.
Saint Joseph is the patron saint of:
- At least three dozen groups, including carpenters, fathers, workers and expectant mothers.
- Over a dozen countries, including Canada, Austria and Peru.
- Over three dozen diocese worldwide, including Winnipeg, Manitoba, Cologne, Germany and Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
I know I said I promoted Saint Patrick’s Day in grammar school, but if you are ever invited to a Saint Joseph’s Day Table, don’t hesitate to attend! Don’t forget to wear Red… and bring an appetite.
Saint Joseph’s Day is also the day that the swallows complete their 3,000 mile (4,828 km) trip from Goya, Argentina to return to their home in Mission San Juan Capistrano.
So much for Saint Joseph. OK, I kinda agreed that Saint Joseph was cool for interceding for the people of Sicily, but now I get to tell my stories about Saint Patrick!
Saint Patrick and Saint Joseph are equals in one respect; no one knows much about their early lives, other than Saint Joseph is a descendent of the House of David and Saint Patrick was born in Britain to wealthy parents near the end of the fourth century.
When Saint Patrick was 16 he was captured by Irish raiders who attacked his family’s estate in Roman Britain. They took him back to Ireland, where he spent the next six years as a prisoner before he finally escaped. When he returned to Britain, he began religious training and when he was ordained 17 years later, he was sent back to Ireland to serve the Christians already in Ireland. He was also charged with the responsibility to convert the pagan Irish to Christianity. Thanks largely to his efforts, within 200 years Ireland totally shed its paganism. Is it any wonder that Saint Patrick became the patron saint of Ireland?
Ireland also has numerous legends, the most famous one being the Leprechaun. The Celtic belief in fairies probably is the source of the belief in leprechauns. The fairies were tiny men and women who could use their magical powers to serve good or evil. But leprechauns were cranky souls. They were responsible for mending the shoes of the other fairies. Leprechauns were known for their trickery, and they often used it to protect their much-fabled pot o’ gold, but they were only minor figures in Celtic folklore.
In 1959 all that changed. Why, you ask? Because Walt Disney released a movie named Darby O’Gill and the Little People. Before that, leprechauns had nothing to do with St. Patrick or the celebration of his day. It was a Catholic holy day. The Little People were a very different sort of leprechauns than the cantankerous little men of Irish folktales. These cheerful, friendly leprechauns are a Hollywood invention, but they’ve since become a symbol of both Saint Patrick’s Day and Ireland in general.
Over the years the Irish have held Saint Patrick in high esteem. His feast day is March 17th, the anniversary of his death. In Ireland it begins with church in the morning to remind the Irish of the meaning of the feast day. The afternoon is used for celebrating. Like Saint Joseph’s Day, Saint Patrick’s Day always occurs during Lent. The Irish are allowed to dispense with the fasting from meat. This dispensation allows them to dance, feast and drink. Slainte!
Speaking of drink, Saint Patrick’s Day in Ireland has traditionally been a religious occasion, so much so that pubs were ordered closed on March 17 until the 1970s. With the pubs again open, the Guinness Stout was running again, not to mention the Harp ale and Jameson’s Irish Whiskey.
Then in 1995, Ireland realized there were millions of people around the world who wanted to celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day in Ireland. Once the coin purse was heard jingling, Ireland welcomed their visitors. Last year close to 1,000,000 people took part in Dublin’s multiday Saint Patrick’s Day Festival. In 2012, the festival will be celebrated from March 16 through 19.
In Ireland, the traditional Saint Patrick’s Day meal is Irish bacon and cabbage. Here in Chicago and the rest of the United States, the choice is corned beef & cabbage with boiled red potatoes. Of course, to build up an appetite, it might help to take a walk… or march in a parade. Saint Patrick’s Day Parades have been going on since the 1700s. But it wasn’t in Ireland. In fact, the first Saint Patrick’s Day Parade in Dublin wasn’t until 1931! So where was the first parade, you ask? Irish soldiers serving in the English military marched through New York City on March 17, 1762. Today New York is still home to the largest parade with 150,000 participants and 3.5 million spectators on the 1.5 mile (2.4 km) route.
My home town of Chicago reminds us every year that the Irish color is green… they dye the Chicago River green every Saint Patrick’s Day.
Besides Ireland and the United States, many cities in Canada, Australia and New Zealand celebrate as well.
So as Saint Patrick’s Day approaches, let me leave you with an Irish toast:
Here’s to your coffin….
May it be built of 100 year old oaks… which I will plant tomorrow.