On March 17, it is said, everyone is Irish. In Canada, it sometimes seems so. From Montreal to Manitoba, from Toronto to the Calgary Tower, green-attired St. Patrick’s Day revellers will march in parades, wear shamrocks, and drink green beer.
The cross-cultural appeal of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations is exceptional. Does anyone outside the Finnish culture celebrate St. Urho’s Day on March 16? Unlikely. How about England’s patron St. George on April 23 or Scotland’s St. Andrew on November 30? Even with my mixed English/Scottish heritage, I had to look up those dates. But on March 17, I always know what colour I’ll be wearing.
Green may be the prime attraction of St. Patrick’s Day. By mid-March, Canadians are tired of a colourless landscape. Sure we get some brilliant blue-sky days, but everything at ground level is grey, white, and washed out. Easter may splash out with colourful eggs and bonnets but its variable date makes it unreliable. March 17 arrives just when we’ve developed a longing to see green, growing things again. Conveniently, St. Patrick’s gives us a reason to haul out forty shades of green to jolly us along until the real thing fights its way out of the frozen ground.
Another attraction of St. Patrick’s Day is a pent-up need to indulge in a party. With March 17 sitting squarely between New Year’s Eve celebrations and the May 24 weekend, St. Patrick’s Day is a convenient mid-point in the party schedule. Even the education system recognizes this: March Break, anyone? St. Patrick’s celebrations don’t just involve green and/or Guinness beer, but enormous parades along with green-theme decorations, clothing, and food.
Ireland didn’t pick up the St. Patrick party habit until North America proved how much fun it could be. St. Patrick’s Day parades began as early as the 18th century in cities such as Montreal and New York, where great numbers of the Irish diaspora gathered to celebrate their heritage. Parades for St. Patrick’s Day didn’t show up in Ireland until the early 20th century. Celebrations in Ireland proved so popular that the customary Lenten prohibition of alcohol had to be lifted for the day.
The cross-cultural appeal of St. Patrick’s Day has spread around the world. Countries as diverse as Russia, Japan, and Argentina mark the day with parades and festivities. March 17 is a national holiday in the island nation of Montserrat, one of only two countries in the world to make it so (the other is, not surprisingly, Ireland.)
In 2013, St. Patrick’s Day achieved a new dimension when intrepid Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield donned a green bow-tie and sang the Irish ballad “Danny Boy” while orbiting earth on the International Space Station.
Back here on earth, millions around the world are once again celebrating St. Patrick’s Day. Whether Irish or not, celebrants enjoy the green-tinged festivities as a way to usher in the coming spring and the return of green.
Barbara Lehtiniemi is a writer, photographer, and AU student. She lives on a windswept rural road in Eastern Ontario.