It's March 17, which means it's time to break out the cute green outfits, shamrock accessories, and all the green cocktail recipes — because it's St. Patrick's Day. But, as much fun as St. Paddy's Day is, it's one of those weird holidays that we love but can't fully explain. And as parents, figuring out how to explain St. Patrick's Day to kids without inviting them to try their first Guinness can pose a bit of a challenge.
It happened to me: on the way home from school last week, my 5-year-old asked me who St. Patrick was and why he gets a holiday. I mean, her only real concern was whether my answer involved her getting presents or candy, but I'll admit, I was stumped on what to say. Or at least, I was stumped on providing an explanation that didn't involve over-sharing with tales of binge drinking in my younger years.
I muddled through by weaving together a bit about March 17 being St. Patrick's birthday (wrong) and how he wanted to bring everyone good luck (nice, but also wrong). But I want better for you. So, let's take it step by step and answer each question a kid might ask about why March 17 is our favorite celebration of everything Irish.
“Who was St. Patrick?”
According to the National Geographic website, St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, was a 4th century Christian missionary who is credited with bringing Christianity to the Irish people. Now brace yourself: St. Patrick wasn’t actually Irish. According to USA Today, historians believe Patrick was a nobleman of either British, Scottish, or Welsh descent. You might be asked about the legend that says St. Patrick drove all the snakes out of Ireland; but historians say that might have just been a symbolic explanation for his missionary work. St. Patrick's Day is the annual cultural and religious celebration we have in honor of his death on March 17.
“But why do we have to wear green?”
For safety! The Irish tradition is to pinch anyone who isn't wearing green on St. Patrick's Day. But seriously, Irish or not, most people wear a bit of green to honor the cultural meaning of the holiday. Plus, the color green has ties to Irish nationalism and republicanism, according to The Independent.
“Why do people make a big deal about drinking on St. Patrick's Day?”
This is a question an older child might ask, and your answer would definitely be shaped by your family's own attitudes about drinking alcohol. But there's actually a religious explanation for the connection between St. Paddy's Day and alcohol. The holiday falls smack in the middle of Lent, when Christians typically give up indulgences like alcohol for the 40 days before Easter. But St. Patrick's Day is such a big deal that the Lent restrictions are temporarily lifted, which leads to people having a really good time with beer (sometimes green) and great food (also sometimes green). Bonus points if you end your answer by sliding over a huge helping of corned beef and cabbage.
“What do leprechauns have to do with St. Patrick?”
The good thing about explaining St. Patrick's Day to younger kids is that there's plenty of talk about magic and fairies to keep them interested. The leprechaun is an Irish fairy and — when they aren't making shoes in the forest — they guard over pots of gold. Catching a leprechaun is supposed to be great luck, since it also means catching his treasure, but is incredibly tough to do (because: Magic).
By the way, the number three is considered a great omen in Ireland, so shamrocks (with their three petals) are thought to be pretty lucky.
“But we’re not Irish. Why do we celebrate St. Patrick's Day?”
Because it's fun! Everything about March 17 — from the food, to the fun accessories, and the parades — invites people of all ages to join in and have a great time. Learning about the traditions that drive different cultural celebrations is a great way to put history into real context. Plus, St. Patrick's Day is a major holiday in Ireland and has become an incredibly popular celebration in the U.S. and other countries. The fact that you don't have to be Irish to join in the festivities just makes it that much better.