What is St. Patrick's Day and why do we celebrate it? Here's how to teach kids

From why we wear green to the origin of the holiday and fun facts, here's how to get kids involved.
/ Source: TODAY
By Joe Dziemianowicz

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First things first: When is St. Patrick's Day? It falls annually on March 17, but there's so much more to know about it than why we wear green to match a shamrock or the verdant Emerald Isle.

“St. Patrick’s Day is the most visible day for celebrating and learning about Irish culture,” said Rachael Gilkey, director of programming and education at the Irish Arts Center in New York City.

And it’s a prime time to find out more about the man the day honors. Mini-history: St. Patrick was born in Britain at the end of the 4th century. After enduring various trials, his mission became teaching people of Ireland about Christianity until his death on March 17, 461.

“Yes, St. Patrick’s Day can be about wearing green, and, if even for one day, identifying as Irish,” Gilkey told TODAY Parents. “But it's also about enjoying and learning about the music, dance, literature and food” of Ireland.

So while moms and dads cook corned beef and cabbage and bake soda bread, kids can feed their curiosity about Ireland’s patron saint in these age-appropriate ways.

Pre-K and Kindergarten: Focus on folklore and fun

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“St. Patrick’s Day began as a religious holiday,” Edward T. O’Donnell, associate professor of Irish-American studies at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., told TODAY. “But over time it has become a universal celebration of ethnic pride and Irish culture.”

While legend has it that Patrick used the shamrock’s three leaves to teach about the holy trinity, wee ones don’t have to understand that as they get creative coloring shamrocks you can download or draw freehand.

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Elementary grades: Learn about the “luck of the Irish”

Leprechauns aren’t the friendliest fairies in the forest (ask Jennifer Aniston, who found out the hard way in her first big movie role). But they are known for luck.

“The Great Leprechaun Chase” is a charming new addition to author and illustrator James Dean’s popular “Pete the Cat” kids’ book series. In it the feisty feline tries to trap a leprechaun for luck, but learns where good fortune really comes from. That’s a lesson as valuable as a pot of gold.

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Middle school: Accent authenticity

“Seeking out traditional Irish music and dance, going to an Irish storytelling hour (deepens the) embrace of Irish culture,” says Gilkey. Local libraries and schools are good sources for live events. Or, cue up a Celtic music podcast or a bit of “Riverdance” to put some Irish spring in kids’ steps.

High school: Channel St. Patrick

“Like some of the people we can admire from much more recent times, Patrick stayed true to his own beliefs while not unnecessarily alienating or antagonizing the people he was trying to persuade,” said Mary D. McCain, a professor of Irish Studies at DePaul University in Chicago.

As such, teens could think about two or three ideas that are core to their beliefs right now and consider how they’d explain or defend these concepts to others.

The point, McCain said, is finding ways of explaining beliefs “in a way that respects the person they’re talking to, even if they think the other person’s beliefs or ideas are wrong.”

On St. Patrick’s Day and beyond, the need for such a skill is evergreen.

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