By Elaine Rohse • Columnist • 

Holiday history

You of Irish descent probably will take offense at what I am about to say. You who enjoy green beer may be even more upset. Anyone who has ever participated in the Dripsey, Cork, St. Patrick’s Day Parade may be most upset of all. That is the shortest St. Patrick’s Day parade in the world. It is only 100 yards long — from one of the two village pubs to the other.

But despite these remonstrances, I wonder. Why is St. Patrick’s Day on my calendar? I wonder also about inclusion of Valentine’s Day and Halloween.

The problem is not with the calendar makers and it is not that I do not enjoy these days. Rather, it is that we humans have forgotten their original purpose.

St. Patrick’s Day began as the anniversary of the death of St. Patrick (385-461 A.D.).

The Irish were said to have been converted to Christianity during the fifth century by St. Patrick, the most commonly recognized of the patron saints. Ireland’s great missionary helped the new religion to become firmly established in that country.

He also is credited with driving snakes out of Ireland. But, says one source, although it is a good story, it is not true. There were no snakes in Ireland at that time.

St. Patrick’s became an official feast day in the early 17th century. But gradually, the day became a celebration of Irish culture in general — and the wearing of the green.

The original color associated with St. Patrick was blue. The supposed reason for the switch was because he is said to have used the trifoliated shamrock plant to explain to the pagan Irish the Holy Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Wearing and displaying green over the years became one of the most ingrained customs of the day.

With regard to Valentine’s Day, when I send a Valentine to my love, I am not remembering that Valentine’s Day honors two different saints named Valentine, both of whom lived in Italy centuries ago. Rather, perhaps, I wonder how frilly Valentines came about on this day and why red is the traditional Valentine’s Day color.

Likewise when I carve a jack-o’-lantern on Halloween, I am not remembering that it is because it is “All Hallow Even” — All Saints’ Eve. Nor have I learned how pumpkins came to be associated with the day unless pumpkin growers undertook that as a project. And how did black and orange become Halloween colors? As a Duck fan, I most assuredly do not think it is in observance of the Oregon State Beavers.

But, oh, the change since the 17th century when St. Patrick’s became that official feast day. Parades are big, big on this day. Wearing green is customary — along with processions, and the lifting of Lenten restrictions on eating and drinking alcohol — sometimes proscribed for the rest of Lent.

In 1903, James O’Mara, Irish member of the United Kingdom Parliament, introduced an act that made St. Patrick’s Day an official Irish holiday. Then, apparently aghast as to what that act hath wrought, he introduced a law to close bars and pubs on that day because drinking had gotten out of hand.

And not just in Ireland. In locations across the world, the day is marked with “copious consumption of alcohol.” One source notes that in Buenos Aires, “All night parties are celebrated in designated streets … . People dance and drink only beer throughout the night, until 7 or 8 in the morning.” An estimated 50,000 celebrants crowded the streets of the Reconquista and its several Irish pubs in 2006.

In New Zealand and Australia, St. Patrick’s Day is big, with revelers drinking and making merry from early afternoon until late at night.

On St. Patrick’s Day in 2012, in the London, Ontario, area, violence erupted because of consumption of alcohol and the large number of inebriated celebrants. College students set on fire a TV van and threw bottles at firefighters and police officers.

Everyone seems to love a parade on St. Patrick’s Day. On that day, Irish Americans parade up New York City’s Fifth Avenue past St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the most famous church in the United States dedicated to that saint. After Dublin and New York, Birmingham’s two-mile route through city center is touted as the third largest city parade.

At the 2009 St. Patrick’s Festival in Dublin, 675,000 attended its parade. You can see a St. Patrick’s parade in Montserrat, where St. Patrick’s is a public holiday. You can see St. Patrick’s Day parades in Russia, South Korea, Switzerland and Japan.

And St. Patrick no doubt would be speechless at the length of dedication to the wearing of the green.

Irish soldiers, in the 1798 rebellion, wore full green uniforms on March 17 to “make a political statement.” The Chicago River has been known to flow green on this day. The Montreal flag features a shamrock. The Toronto hockey team from 1919 to 1927 was known as the Toronto St. Patricks and wore green jerseys.

Approximately 210 exterior lights in the Calgary Tower were changed to new green CFL bulbs to resemble a leprechaun’s hat just before St. Patrick’s Day. Shamrocks flown in from Ireland are worn on St. Patrick’s Day by the Irish Guards, a regiment in the British Army consisting primarily of soldiers from Ireland. Water in London’s Trafalgar Square fountains spewed green in 2008. Green lights lit up the Sydney Opera House on St. Patrick’s Day in 2010. And I’ll wager you will find green beer in Yamhill County in 2013.

Hanging in my closet, my green attire is at the ready for that day — because my acquaintances will be doing likewise, and my calendar says it is St. Patrick’s Day.

Elaine Rohse can be reached at

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