As March arrives, many look forward to the holidays of St. Patrick’s Day and Mardi Gras. Yet both of these holidays are more modern American inventions than age-old religious traditions.
St. Patrick’s Day, as a religious celebration, has a lengthy history. It dates back to the mid-17th century
and was initiated to honor Saint Patrick and his work to bring Christianity to Ireland. The Feast of St. Patrick was held each year on the date of his supposed death, on March 17, 461 AD. The observance of the date was
a solemn occasion, mostly involving quiet prayer. As recently as the 1970s, pubs were closed in Ireland on St. Patrick’s Day. The rollicking revelry typically associated with the day was decidedly un-Irish and an American invention. During the Irish Famine of 1845–1850, many Irish immigrated to America, where they were not welcome. As the Irish community in America grew and prospered, they began to celebrate both their Irish-ness and their newfound American-ness. Corned beef, shamrocks, and leprechauns were never part of true Irish St. Paddy’s Day celebrations, but they were integrated into Irish-American identity and so became celebrated symbols of St. Patrick’s Day. The American version of St. Patrick’s Day is so strong that many Irish-American traditions have even returned to Ireland.
Mardi Gras, like St. Paddy’s Day, originated as a solemn religious holiday. As the day before the start
of the ritual fasting of Lent, it was an opportunity to indulge in sweet, fatty foods, giving rise to the name
“Fat Tuesday.” Over the centuries, these small indulgences led to greater hedonism, practices that
were heavily discouraged by the Church. The elaborate Mardi Gras celebrations held in New Orleans emerged
in 1857 when a group of men created a secret society called the Mistick Krewe of Comus. They held a lavish
ball and parade, setting the secular foundations for many wild Mardi Gras to come.