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Wikimedia Commons

Who Was Saint Patrick?

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Slave, traveler, evangelist, abolitionist, and saint. A scant 400 years after Jesus' birth, the priest known as Patrick took the Great Commission seriously, to spread the gospel to the ends of the earth by converting the frightening barbarians of that scary outpost known as Ireland. Dates and details of Patrick's life are somewhat ambiguous since written records from fifth-century Ireland are scarce. A lot of what we know comes from what little Patrick himself wrote, or from biographies written long after his time.

According to tradition, Saint Patrick was born Maewyn Succat in Britain (different sources say England, Scotland, or Wales) to Roman parents around AD 387. In his later ministry, he went by the name Patricius Daorbae which means "Patrick who was once a slave."

When he was around 16 years old, Patrick was kidnapped by Irish marauders who sold him into slavery to a Druid herdsman named Milchu. Patrick remained in Ireland for six years. During this time, Patrick learned the Celtic language and became acquainted with the practices of the Druids. He later wrote that he became close to God during this time and prayed every night for his deliverance. He ran away after hearing direction from an angel and walked 200 miles to catch a boat back to Britain. Afterward, Patrick was sent to France to begin his training for the priesthood despite the long break in his formal education. When he achieved priesthood, Patrick was assigned to Britain, but his dream was to return to Ireland to convert the pagans.

According to later biographers, his teachers recommended him to Pope Celestine I for a mission to Ireland, or it’s possible he left for Ireland on his own because of a vision. While Patrick was not the first Catholic bishop assigned to Ireland, he was the first who set a goal of converting the entire country. His predecessor Palladius was mainly concerned with ministering to the existing Irish Christian minority in the south and protecting them from the influence of the Druids. Celestine sent Patrick to Ireland in 428 or 432.

Patrick's first quest in Ireland was to see the slave owner of his youth, the Druid Milchu; not to seek revenge, but to convert him. Milchu heard the news of the priest's arrival in Ireland and he committed suicide by burning himself, his home, and his treasures before Patrick arrived. Sources of this story vary, with some saying Milchu killed himself out of fear that Patrick was seeking revenge. Others say Milchu was a proud Druid who preferred death to listening to the foreign gospel. In any case, Patrick was devastated.

Patrick's first church was in what is now County Down. He converted a Druid chieftain named Dichu who granted him a barn on a hill, or Sabhail (pronounced Saul), where Patrick founded a church.

The priest traveled from coast to coast in Ireland, visiting kings and chieftains, speaking their language and evangelizing. He confronted Druids and performed miracles by resisting their powers and escaping the several times he was taken prisoner. Patrick converted leaders and slaves alike, and founded churches in many corners of Ireland. One Easter, Patrick and his followers started a fire early in the morning near Tara. The local law forbade anyone starting a fire before the king did, so King Laoghaire and his Druid priest faced off with Patrick, who did not back down but told those present of his powerful God. As the story goes, a Druid magician challenged Patrick to a trial by fire, which led to the magician's death.

Image Cathedral of Armagh. Image by Brian Shaw.

Patrick was especially proud of bringing Christianity to Ulster in the northern part of Ireland, and founded the Cathedral of Armagh, which still stands on a hill he selected.

Odhran, St. Patrick's charioteer, became a martyr by saving the bishop's life. Odhran heard a rumor of an assassination, and persuaded Patrick to change jobs with him on the appointed day as a special favor. Unaware of the threat, Patrick granted his wish, and Odhran was attacked and killed.

Patrick was one of the first people in the history of the world to publicly denounce the institution of slavery. Slaves had no voice—those in power owned slaves, and the church didn't condemn slavery for another thousand years. Patrick, however, had been there, done that, and his identification with the downtrodden helped him convert those who were ignored by the powers that be. He was also an early feminist, actively evangelizing women in an age when many missionaries discounted or feared them. His activities in this area may have led to some trouble with the Catholic church, which led to Patrick writing his extensive Confessio.

Croagh Patrick, or St. Patrick's Mountain, was his refuge and purgatory. It was on this hill that Patrick fasted and prayed for 40 days straight for the people of Ireland. He pleaded to God for special treatment for the Irish on judgment day. The hill became a pilgrimage site, and gold was discovered there in the 1980s, but is not mined.

Later in life, Patrick retired to his first church, Sabhail. He wished to die at Armagh, but a vision told him to stop his journey and return to Saul and remain there. St. Patrick died in 463 or 491 or some year on March 17th, which became his feast day, as is the custom for saints, although St. Patrick was never officially canonized by the Vatican, as his sainthood predated formal canonization.

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between Stuffing and Dressing?
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For carbohydrate consumers, nothing completes a Thanksgiving meal like stuffing—shovelfuls of bread, celery, mushrooms, and other ingredients that complement all of that turkey protein.

Some people don’t say “stuffing,” though. They say “dressing.” In these calamitous times, knowing how to properly refer to the giant glob of insulin-spiking bread seems necessary. So what's the difference?

Let’s dismiss one theory off the bat: Dressing and stuffing do not correlate with how the side dish is prepared. A turkey can be stuffed with dressing, and stuffing can be served in a casserole dish. Whether it’s ever seen the inside of a bird is irrelevant, and anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong and should be met with suspicion, if not outright derision.

The terms are actually separated due to regional dialects. “Dressing” seems to be the favored descriptor for southern states like Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia, while “stuffing” is preferred by Maine, New York, and other northern areas. (Some parts of Pennsylvania call it "filling," which is a bit too on the nose, but to each their own.)

If “stuffing” stemmed from the common practice of filling a turkey with carbs, why the division? According to The Huffington Post, it may have been because Southerners considered the word “stuffing” impolite, so never embraced it.

While you should experience no material difference in asking for stuffing or dressing, when visiting relatives it might be helpful to keep to their regionally-preferred word to avoid confusion. Enjoy stuffing yourselves.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Why Do the Lions and Cowboys Always Play on Thanksgiving?
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Because it's tradition! But how did this tradition begin?

Every year since 1934, the Detroit Lions have taken the field for a Thanksgiving game, no matter how bad their record has been. It all goes back to when the Lions were still a fairly young franchise. The team started in 1929 in Portsmouth, Ohio, as the Spartans. Portsmouth, while surely a lovely town, wasn't quite big enough to support a pro team in the young NFL. Detroit radio station owner George A. Richards bought the Spartans and moved the team to Detroit in 1934.

Although Richards's new squad was a solid team, they were playing second fiddle in Detroit to the Hank Greenberg-led Tigers, who had gone 101-53 to win the 1934 American League Pennant. In the early weeks of the 1934 season, the biggest crowd the Lions could draw for a game was a relatively paltry 15,000. Desperate for a marketing trick to get Detroit excited about its fledgling football franchise, Richards hit on the idea of playing a game on Thanksgiving. Since Richards's WJR was one of the bigger radio stations in the country, he had considerable clout with his network and convinced NBC to broadcast a Thanksgiving game on 94 stations nationwide.

The move worked brilliantly. The undefeated Chicago Bears rolled into town as defending NFL champions, and since the Lions had only one loss, the winner of the first Thanksgiving game would take the NFL's Western Division. The Lions not only sold out their 26,000-seat stadium, they also had to turn fans away at the gate. Even though the juggernaut Bears won that game, the tradition took hold, and the Lions have been playing on Thanksgiving ever since.

This year, the Lions host the Minnesota Vikings.

HOW 'BOUT THEM COWBOYS?


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The Cowboys, too, jumped on the opportunity to play on Thanksgiving as an extra little bump for their popularity. When the chance to take the field on Thanksgiving arose in 1966, it might not have been a huge benefit for the Cowboys. Sure, the Lions had filled their stadium for their Thanksgiving games, but that was no assurance that Texans would warm to holiday football so quickly.

Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm, though, was something of a marketing genius; among his other achievements was the creation of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.

Schramm saw the Thanksgiving Day game as a great way to get the team some national publicity even as it struggled under young head coach Tom Landry. Schramm signed the Cowboys up for the game even though the NFL was worried that the fans might just not show up—the league guaranteed the team a certain gate revenue in case nobody bought tickets. But the fans showed up in droves, and the team broke its attendance record as 80,259 crammed into the Cotton Bowl. The Cowboys beat the Cleveland Browns 26-14 that day, and a second Thanksgiving pigskin tradition caught hold. Since 1966, the Cowboys have missed having Thanksgiving games only twice.

Dallas will take on the Los Angeles Chargers on Thursday.

WHAT'S WITH THE NIGHT GAME?


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In 2006, because 6-plus hours of holiday football was not sufficient, the NFL added a third game to the Thanksgiving lineup. This game is not assigned to a specific franchise—this year, the Washington Redskins will welcome the New York Giants.

Re-running this 2008 article a few days before the games is our Thanksgiving tradition.

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