Do you have your favorite green shirt ready to go for March 17? Will you dye your scrambled eggs green that morning? Believe it or not, behind our silly St. Patrick’s Day traditions – like wearing green or stories about leprechauns and pots of gold – lies a rich story about a man devoted to God who spread the Gospel throughout Ireland.
On March 17th cultures all over the world celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. Of course, St. Patrick’s Day has become a pretty secular holiday but when we understand the real meaning behind the celebration, it can become a more fun – and meaningful – experience for the whole family!
Enjoy the story of St. Patrick below! Read it aloud with your kids and learn together about the man behind the holiday.
Who was St. Patrick?
Patrick was born in Britain circa A.D. 385 – over 1600 years ago! At the time, the Roman Empire – of which Britain was a part – was on the verge of collapse. Barbarians were on the move, invading different regions of the empire. Roman legions (large groups of soldiers) had deserted Britain, making it vulnerable to attack. When Patrick was sixteen years old, Irish pirates invaded his village, destroyed it and took Patrick captive. He was put on a ship bound for Ireland.
In Ireland, Patrick was sold as a slave and put to work as a shepherd for pigs. In those Irish hills, life was hard for Patrick. He was exposed to a harsh climate and nearly starved to death. He was completely alone, but he turned to God for comfort and companionship. Through prayer Patrick found great relief:
“The love of God and the fear of him surrounded me more and more. And faith grew. And the spirit roused so that in one day I would say as many as a hundred prayers, and at night only slightly less.”
Six years into slavery, Patrick had a vision from God. He was told he would return to his homeland. Not long after he had another vision and was told his ship was waiting for him. Patrick ran away and travelled more than two hundred miles to Ireland’s southeast coast and boarded a ship headed for Gaul (modern-day France), where many people believe he trained for ministry.
After returning to his homeland, Patrick received another vision. In it a man named Victoricius came to him holding many letters. Patrick read one of the letters aloud, called “The Voice of the Irish.” As he read he heard Irish voices calling out to him and pleading for his return to Ireland.
Years later Patrick was ordained as a bishop, a leader in the Church. Around A.D. 432 Patrick returned to Ireland to start sharing the Gospel about Jesus with the Irish people.
Patrick’s missionary work over the next thirty years was truly remarkable. He journeyed across Ireland, spreading the gospel, baptizing and confirming countless believers and founding many churches and monasteries. One of Patrick’s missionary strategies was to focus his efforts on evangelizing Ireland’s many tribal kings. His thought was that converting the kings would lead to the conversion of the their subjects. His strategy proved extremely successful, and many people became Christians!
Spreading the Gospel in Ireland was far from easy for Patrick. He faced frequent opposition and was in constant danger of being killed for his bold faith. Lorica, also known as “Patrick’s Breastplate,” is a special prayer of protection that Patrick would say. Many people read it today because it reminds them of Patrick’s confidence in the Lord.
Patrick died on March 17th in A.D. 461. His is best known for organizing the church in Ireland and spreading Christianity there.
Many legends surround Patrick’s life, including that he used the shamrock to explain the Trinity. There really isn’t any historical proof to that, but the legend can explain why we associate shamrocks with St. Patrick’s Day!
Why is St. Patrick important?
Historically, St. Patrick’s missionary work forever changed Ireland. His bold faith and godly character makes him one of the great saints in church history. As a former slave, he condemned slavery as an ungodly institution. As a missionary, he lived among the Irish, identified with them, honored their customs and beliefs and redeemed many of them to reflect the truth and teachings of Christianity. As an evangelist, he was driven to make God’s name known among the Irish. God used his steely resolve and ambition to advance God’s kingdom in a mighty way in Ireland. Patrick was passionate about evangelizing the Irish, but he was also passionate about educating converts in Christian living and service. Today, Patrick is seen as the ultimate model for Celtic Christians. Ultimately, his life and ministry serve as a pointer to the life and ministry of Christ himself.
Should Christians celebrate St. Patrick’s Day?
Deciding to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day is a matter of personal conviction for you and your family. Like Patrick often did with Irish traditions, believers today can redeem a holiday that has become quite secular in its practices and traditions (e.g., leprechauns and shamrocks). Christians throughout the centuries have participated in cultural events like St. Patrick’s Day and used them as springboards for relationship building and gospel conversations with nonbelievers.
How do Christians honor him?
St. Patrick’s Day is an officially recognized feast day in the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Eastern Orthodox and Lutheran Church. Church services near the holiday usually honor Patrick’s life and missionary work. Many Christians participate in the traditions surrounding the holiday, such as public parades and festivals, Gaelic folk music dancing and wearing green and shamrocks.
How can families participate in St. Patrick’s Day?
There are a number of ways your family can celebrate St. Patrick’s Day! Families can set aside time to read the real story of Patrick’s life and share it with their friends and neighbors. Recalling the biographies of past saints is a great way to encourage and embolden modern believers. Reciting famous Irish prayers and blessings as a family can honor Patrick’s love for prayer. Families might also consider a feast or gathering at their home to celebrate God’s heart for the nations and his global mission.
 Mary Cagney, “Patrick the Saint,” Christianity Today, October 1, 1998, accessed March 4, 2015, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/1998/Issue60/60h010.html?start=1.