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St. Patrick's Day-- today, March 17 -- is arguably the most inclusive holiday of them all. Everyone is an honorary Irishman on St. Patrick's Day, right?
But who was the real St. Patrick? And how did he manage to become one of the most popular saints, transcending cultures and religions? Before you celebrate St. Patrick's Day by hoisting a pint and tucking into some corned beef, cabbage and Irish soda bread, here's six facts we bet you didn't know about St. Patrick.
-- He was not Irish. "He was not born in Ireland," said Father Ryan Wayne Erlenbush, a Catholic priest and blogger at the New Theological Movement. "He was born in Kilpatrick, Scotland, about 387" A.D.
-- He was a slave. When he was a young teenager, the man who would become St. Patrick was kidnapped by Irish pirates and sold into slavery. "The first time he was in Ireland was as a slave," Erlenbush told The Times.
St. Patrick would use this time fruitfully, however, learning to speak Celtic and absorbing Irish culture. As a young adult, he heard the voice of God urging him to escape, Erlenbush said. He fled to England, where he studied to become a Catholic priest and then a bishop. He was called again, this time to return to Ireland and convert the people from their Druid and pagan ways. Everywhere he went, the legend says, he was first met with opposition, but was able to win everyone over.
Although St. Patrick did not work alone, he is credited with the peaceful conversion to Christianity of Ireland, Erlenbush said.
-- He did not rid Ireland of its snakes. Experts say there were no snakes on the island to start with.
So how did this legend begin? Erlenbush said he believes the story is true -- symbolically. Druids and pagans often used images of serpents and snakes as part of their worship. As St. Patrick converted them, he symbolically banished those snakes. (That's why he's sometimes shown with a banished snake curling around his staff, as seen in the statue above.)
-- He used a shamrock to preach the Gospel. It's not a coincidence that St. Patrick's day is summed up with a shamrock. Shamrocks covered the ground throughout Ireland's lush, rolling landscape when St. Patrick came along. He allegedly plucked a piece of the ever-present green and used it to symbolize the Holy Trinity in his preaching.
Many people mistakenly interchange a shamrock and a four-leafed clover when recalling St. Patrick. "A four-leafed clover is obviously a huge problem for theology," Erlenbush said with a chuckle.
-- St. Patrick was originally linked to the color blue. Saints are often associated with a particular color. It allows followers to incorporate that hue into their everyday lives -- perhaps in a bow, or a button -- as tribute. And in the beginning, St. Patrick's color was blue.
"I have no idea why," Erlenbush said. But St. Patrick's shamrock teachings became so intertwined with his image that eventually St. Patrick became associated with that trademark green that signals the arrival of St. Patrick's Day each March 17.
-- St. Patrick would be totally OK with green beer. Erlenbush cannot say this with 100% certainty, but he has it on good authority that St. Patrick would be honored by the plethora of pints that will be hoisted in his honor this weekend.
"Insofar as a beer helps us enjoy God's creation, I don't think he'd have a problem with it," the priest said. In fact, many Catholic diocese give parishioners a sort of hall pass from their adherence to Lenten sacrifices so that the faithful can enjoy the day. All that said, St. Patrick "would want us to be joyful ... but not to excess."