The History of 9 St. Patrick’s Day Traditions
By Mary Beth Skylis
St. Patrick’s Day is filled with its own unique traditions. If you don’t wear something green, you can expect to be pinched. You might take part in a traditional St. Patrick’s day dinner by eating corned beef and cabbage, or head to the bar to down some green beer.
But where did these practices come from? Did St. Patrick have a role in the development of these traditions? And did these customs even originate in Ireland at all? Let’s dive into the history of nine St. Patrick’s Day traditions.
1. Wearing Green on St. Patrick’s Day
Every year, millions of St. Patrick’s Day celebrants wear something green. The color seems to point toward the Emerald Isle or the Irish flag, painting a poignant story about the tradition’s history.
But St. Patrick’s original color of choice was actually blue. In fact, it wasn’t until 1641—over 1000 years after St. Patrick’s death—that green began making a statement in Ireland. When Ireland decided it no longer wanted to be controlled by Britain, the Irish began donning green in a display of nationalism.
2. Eating Corned Beef and Cabbage
Restaurants across America often offer corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day. The dish first caught on in New York City and quickly became a holiday staple.
Beef wasn’t easily available in Ireland, as it was expensive and hard to find; people dined on salt pork instead. Even today, in Ireland, most people look to the cheaper alternative and buy beef brisket rather than corned beef and cabbage.
But when immigrants settled in New York in the 19th century, they began eating beef. The meat was sold by local kosher butchers, and as such, was more available and more affordable than pork.
3. Eating Blarney Stone Pastries
If you’ve ever been lucky enough to taste a Blarney Stone pastry, you know how delicious this peanut-and-powdered-sugar-filled St. Patrick’s Day treat is. Blarney stone pastries are believed to have originated in Iowa and are extremely popular in the midwest. The Blarney Stone pastry was named after a piece of limestone that was built into Blarney Castle in 1446, which is said to bring the gift of grace and gab to those who kiss it.
4. Getting Pinched For Not Wearing Green
Legend has it that leprechauns are responsible for the pinching that takes place on St. Patrick’s Day. Wearing green is said to make people invisible to leprechauns, keeping us safe from their pesky pinches for the duration of St. Patrick’s Day. Today, it's believed pinching people for not wearing green is a way to reprimand them for not sporting their Irish pride.
5. St. Patrick’s Day Parades
In Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day has always been a celebration of faith. It wasn’t until the holiday made it to America that St. Patrick’s Day parades began to take place. The first St. Patrick’s Day Parade was held in New York City in 1762. According to Timothy Meagher, a history professor at Catholic University, these parades were important, as they allowed Irish Americans to showcase the size of their communities and celebrate their identities.
6. Drowning the Shamrock
At the end of the night, St. Patrick’s Day celebrants dunk a shamrock into their last glass of whiskey, toast to the saint, and then toss the shamrock over their left shoulder for good luck. This custom predominantly takes place to honor St. Patrick, who may have used the shamrock as a teaching tool for Catholicism; its three leaves are said to have represented the holy trinity.
7. Dyeing a River Green
The Journeymen’s Plumbers Local Union 130 first dyed the Chicago River green in 1962 in celebration of St. Patrick’s Day. The dye the plumbers chose had previously been used to track pollution in waterways, but the bright green color seemed like the perfect medium for a colorful St. Patrick’s Day display. Turning the river green requires 40 pounds of dye, which lasts for a few days each year.
8. Drinking Green Beer
Before people were turning their rivers green, they were adding an emerald hue to their beer. Green beer first arrived on the American bar scene in the early 1900s. The unconventionally colored concoction continued to grow more popular in the following decades, eventually spreading internationally. Blue food coloring mixes with beer’s yellow tones to create a visually striking libation.
9. Abstaining From Alcohol
Although St. Patrick’s Day is commonly celebrated with lots of beer—particularly Guinness—in America, it used to be a day of sobriety for Irish citizens. This is because St. Patrick’s Day is considered a holy day, which was meant to be observed by going to church. Because of this, pubs in Ireland were closed on the holiday all the way up until the 1970s.
A version of this story originally ran in 2022; it has been updated for 2023.