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How St. Patrick's Day Lost Its Religion
PHOTO: A kilt-wearing Star Wars Stormtrooper walks in the 2013 Detroit St. Patricks Day Parade at Michigan Avenue, March 10, 2013 in Detroit.

When people think of St. Patrick's Day celebrations, they think corned beef and cabbage with green beer to wash it down. The holiday was surprisingly similar when it began with Irish Catholics in the early 17th century, but with a heavier dose of religion.

St. Patrick's Day was an Irish celebration that included church in the morning and drinking, dancing and a great feast in the afternoon. The feast included Irish bacon and cabbage and one particular ritual was dropping a shamrock in a glass of whiskey and drinking it.

"It's a strange combination of celebration and religious holiday," Patrick Griffin, a professor of history at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., said.

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Irish immigrants brought the holiday to the United States as early as 1737. The day was a time for them to claim their place in the United States, which was hostile toward their arrival.

St. Patrick's Day began to change when immigrants became a part of society. The hostility fell away and they became Americans, not immigrants.

"The Irish have secured their place in America," Griffin said. "They're completely comfortable here in their place. St. Patrick's Day doesn't have the same assertive edge it had in the past."

One part of the holiday that has dissipated is the religious undertone, which Griffin attributed to the waning influence of the Roman Catholic Church. But there are still hints of the religious tradition, such as the annual parade in New York City. The parade has the trappings of a Catholic celebration as it travels down the city's Fifth Avenue, passing right by St. Patrick's Cathedral that holds a public Mass.

"This is a nod to back in the day when this was a much more Catholic celebration," Griffin said.

The first St. Patrick's Day parade was in Boston in 1737. The tradition began in New York City in 1762 when Irish soldiers serving in the British army would march to try to recruit the Irish immigrants living in New York to join them.

Today, people of all backgrounds celebrate St. Patrick's Day in the United States. Walking down any major city street this Sunday, you will find Irish sporting their green clothes right next to the Hispanics.

"St. Patrick's Day is now an American celebration," Griffin said. "It's a diasporic holiday."

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