By Alice Coyle
Nearly 12 percent of Americans, and more than 80 million worldwide claim to be of Irish ancestry. That gives a lot of people a pretty good excuse to rock shamrocks and down a pint or two of Guinness on March 17. But beyond the parades and partying at the pub, how much do these lads and lasses really know about St. Patrick's Day? Here are a few St. Patrick's Day facts to consume along with all that corned beef and cabbage Friday.
Not native to the Emerald Isle.
St. Patrick wasn't Irish and wasn't born in Ireland. His parents were Roman citizens who lived in Wales, where Patrick was born in 385 AD. Patrick died March 17, 461 AD, which is the holy day observed by the Catholic Church.
A religious experience.
When he was 16, Patrick was kidnapped and sold into slavery by Irish marauders. During his enslavement he formed his religious beliefs and after escaping back to England was ordained as a priest. Patrick later returned to Ireland to convert the Irish Celtic pagans to Christianity.
Shamrocks and snakes.
The shamrock symbol associated with St. Patrick's was used as a teaching tool to explain the Holy Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) to the pagan Irish. Legend credits St. Patrick with driving the snakes out of Ireland, but as there never where any snakes to begin with, the reptiles were more likely a metaphor for ridding the country of pagan beliefs and practices.
Celebrating St. Patrick.
St. Patrick's Day became an official Christian feast day in the early 17th century but did not become a national holiday in Ireland until 1903. The first largely public celebration of St. Patrick's Day took place in Boston in 1737, and the first St. Patrick's Day parade stepped off in New York City in 1762, when Irish soldiers serving in the English military marched through the city to celebrate the religious feast day and their Irish roots. The first St. Patrick's Day parade in Ireland was held in Dublin in 1931. And celebrating St. Patrick with a pint of Guinness wasn't possible in Ireland until 1970, as Irish pubs were required by law to be closed March 17.
Sales of the black beer soar on St. Patrick's Day, when the brewer estimates 13 million pints are consumed worldwide -- many of them to wash down a hearty helping of corned beef and cabbage. Popular St. Patrick's Day fare for Irish-Americans, more than 26 billion pounds of beef and two billion pounds of cabbage are produced in the U.S. each year.
Green waters flow in Chicago.
It's easy being green on St. Patrick's Day, particularly in Chicago where the city dyes its river that color in honor of the holiday. This tradition began in 1962 when the parade organizer, head of a plumbers' union, noticed that the dye that had been used to find sources of river pollution stained his clothing green. He thought it would be a great idea to use enough dye to turn the whole river green for Chi-town's St. Patrick's Day celebration. The dye lasts for about five hours. Researchers say the environmental impact of the dye is less than that of the pollution from sewage-treatment plants.