Savannah boasts one of the country’s largest St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, but there are historical elements of the holiday that can get drowned out in the sea of green beer.
Let’s start with the missionary himself.
Contrary to popular belief, St. Patrick of Ireland was not born Irish. He was born in what is now England, but what kidnapped by Irish raiders and sold into slavery. St. Patrick would later escape from captivity and return to England where he would become a bishop. When he returned to Ireland, he brought Christianity with him, effectively becoming the patron saint of the country. He used the three-leafed shamrock to represent the holy trinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Now that we’re a bit more familiar with the Apostle of Ireland, let’s examine some of the more reverent aspects of Savannah’s biggest holiday.
Knights of Columbus
The Knights of Columbus, founded in Connecticut in 1882, is the world’s largest Catholic fraternal service, and the Savannah Council 631 was chartered in 1902 by Colonel Michael J. O’Leary, a Savannah native. Since there were no Knights of Columbus councils in Georgia in the early 20th century, it was O’Leary’s duty to find areas in Georgia with a sizable population of Catholic men who could join the fraternal organization. Along with Savannah, O’Leary also tabbed Atlanta and Augusta as cities that fit the bill.
Celtic Cross Ceremony
The Celtic Cross Ceremony is what jumpstarts the week leading up to the St. Patrick’s Day parade. Following Mass at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, a procession of Irish families, led by bagpipers and drummers, make the march to Emmet Park on Bay Street. Once the members of the procession arrive at the park, they place their flags around the Celtic cross monument, a gesture that is meant to honor Irish Americans from the past, present, and future. The ceremony is meant to pay respect to Savannah’s original St. Patrick’s Day celebrations back in the early 1800s.
Feast of St. Patrick Mass
Before the St. Patrick’s Day parade begins, Savannah’s Irish Catholic community gathers at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist for morning Mass. The religious service, which to open to everyone and revolves around keeping the spirit of St. Patrick alive, traditionally kicks off the highly-anticipated parade and ensuing festivities.
St. Patrick’s Day Parade
It should come as no surprise that Savannah’s St. Patrick’s Day parade in its current form didn’t come to fruition overnight. What’s considered the “first” St. Patrick’s Day parade, complete with an appointed grand marshal, took place in 1870 and the Savannah St. Patrick’s Day Parade Committee, which handles all of the intricacies of the celebration, was officially formed in 1926. The parade has seen its share of visitors over the years, including former presidents Harry Truman and Jimmy Carter in 1962 and 1978, respectively, and most recently, Vice President Mike Pence in 2018.
St. Patrick’s Day Fire Ball
While not directly related to the holiday, the St. Patrick’s Day Fire Ball is an annual mainstay that coincides with the St. Patrick’s Day weekend. The event, which is open to the public, is the IAFF Savannah Firefighters’ welcoming of its newest members. The Fire Ball also honors those firefighters who have recently retired and recognizes the fire departments from around the world that will be join Savannah in celebrating St. Patrick’s Day.
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