For such a nominally Irish holiday, St. Patrick’s Day is one of the most international occasions of the year. On March 17 each year, rivers and landmarks turn green all across the United States, United Kingdom, China, Australia, Cairo, Prague, Italy, France, Brazil, Vilnius and Dubai. Though it’s touted as a celebration of Irish national pride, St. Patrick’s Day traditions are for anyone who feels like sporting a little green.
Saint Patrick himself wasn’t Irish, but perhaps that’s fitting for the most widely celebrated national holiday — even in places where there aren’t big Irish populations. Saint Patrick is believed to actually be British, but he became a priest after he was kidnapped and brought to Ireland as a slave. Today, he is revered as the Patron Saint of Ireland for bringing Christianity to the country. Supposedly, he also drove all the snakes out of Ireland, which is awfully convenient for him considering Ireland never had snakes to begin with. (It’s more than likely that the “snakes” were a metaphor for pagans and non-believers.)
Initially, St. Patrick’s Day was a religious feast that didn’t involve consuming copious amounts of booze, but it’s evolved into a generalized celebration of all things “Irish,” especially if debauchery counts in your book. It was actually Irish emigrants (especially those who settled in the United States) who made it into the secular holiday we know today. The first St. Patrick’s Day parade in Boston was held in 1737, and in 1762, New York City followed suit.
And by the way, if you want to stay true to the legacy of this holiday, “St. Paddy’s Day” is the correct abbreviation — not “St. Patty’s Day.” “Patrick” comes from the Gaelic name Pádraig.
Strange St. Patrick’s Day Traditions In The United States
1. New London, Wisconsin
In New London, leprechauns crawl around the city and change all the signs to “New Dublin” for the day — even on the highway. Apparently, this tradition stems from the wave of Irish immigration that fundamentally altered New London’s previously German cultural profile in the 19th century. The leprechauns (members of the local Shamrock Club) go on to visit hospitals and schools. The parade also includes a staged adaptation of Finnegan’s Wake.
2. Portland, Maine
Talk about a rude awakening: the Paddy’s Day Plunge of Portland, Maine, involves jumping into the freezing Atlantic Ocean at 5:30 a.m. Those who braved the early alarm and the frigid waters then enjoy a free Irish breakfast, a live auction and a raffle at a nearby restaurant. It’s also for a good cause (and not just adrenaline): The event donates proceeds to charity.
3. New Orleans, Louisiana
No one throws a parade like New Orleans. And on St. Patrick’s Day, the city flocks down to the Irish Channel neighborhood for a veritable street party. New Orleans might be the only place where you can take part in a vegetable food fight too. Think: all the ingredients that go in Irish stew (especially cabbages), minus the beef. This ceremonial throwing of the cabbages (using an underhanded technique, so no one gets hurt) is meant to memorialize how cabbage replaced potatoes during the potato famine, thus becoming a staple of Irish cuisine.
4. Chicago, Illinois
Of all the cities that dye their waterways or landmarks green for St. Paddy’s Day (and there are many), Chicago’s green river is the most famous. Every year, the Chicago River turns green in time for a parade held on the closest Saturday to the holiday. This tradition has been guarded by the Butler and Rowan families for more than 50 years. A six-person boat crew (family only) distributes a top-secret recipe that contains eco-friendly, vegetable-based dye into the river, casting a spell on the waterway that can last for a few days.
5. Hot Springs, Arkansas
Hot Springs is the home of the world’s shortest St. Patrick’s Day Parade, which takes place on “The Shortest Street in Everyday Use in the World,” as it was named by Ripley’s Believe It Or Not in the 1940s. Bridge Street, which is only 98 feet long, hosts the hour-long parade, which includes Elvis impersonators, a Blarney Stone kissing contest and various other performances.
Unusual St. Patrick’s Day Traditions In The Rest Of The World
This Caribbean island, home to a sizeable Irish Catholic population since the 17th century, is the only place in the world outside of Ireland where St. Patrick’s Day is a public holiday. Montserrat’s celebration isn’t just generously proportioned — it lasts for 10 days! In addition to celebrating the saint, the day also commemorates a slave rebellion and includes a calypso competition and Creole food, blending the island’s Irish and African heritage.
7. Brussels, Belgium
Along with a traditional parade, Brussels residents play Irish sports such as Gaelic football, hurling and camogie on March 17. And if you feel like dusting off your sports attire later and cleaning up, head to the black tie St. Patrick’s Day Ball, where you can toast during a champagne reception. It’s unclear whether the champagne is green or not, however.
8. Banwen, Wales
This Welsh city has laid claim to being St. Patrick’s birthplace, and they ritualize it annually. According to members of the Banwen & District History Club in Wales, St. Patrick was born in Banwen in the year 385 AD as Maewyn Succat. Their parade culminates at a stone commemorating the saint’s alleged birthplace.
9. International Space Station
How “international” are we talking here? Because apparently, St. Patrick’s Day isn’t only earthbound. In 2013, a Canadian astronaut wore green, took a photo of Ireland from space and posted a video of him singing “Danny Boy.” This builds on the precedent of another astronaut who performed an Irish flute song in space to commemorate St. Patrick’s Day.
10. Ise, Japan
One of Japan’s St. Patrick’s Day parades kicks off at the Ise Shrine, which is dedicated to a Shinto sun goddess. With the Japanese and Irish flags flying together, residents dress like leprechauns, play bagpipes and do jigs. The day culminates with an oyster festival.