The History of St. Patrick’s Day

Saint Patrick’s Day is a cultural and religious celebration held on 17 March, the traditional death date of Saint Patrick (c. AD 385–461), the foremost patron saint of Ireland.

Patrick was a 5th-century Romano-British Christian missionary and bishop in Ireland. What is known about Saint Patrick comes from the Declaration, which was allegedly written by Patrick himself. It is believed that he was born in Roman Britain in the fourth century, into a wealthy Romano-British family. His father was a deacon and his grandfather was a priest in the Christian church. According to the Declaration Patrick was kidnapped by Irish raiders and taken as a slave to Gaelic Ireland when he was sixteen years old. It says that he spent a total of six years working as a shepherd and that during this time he found God. The Declaration says that God spoke to Patrick, and told him to flee to the coast, where a ship would take him home. After making his way home, Patrick went on to become a priest.

Irish Government Ministers travel abroad on official visits to various countries around the globe to celebrate St Patrick’s Day and promote Ireland. The most prominent of these is the visit of the Irish Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) with the U.S. President which happens on or around St. Patrick’s Day.

Saint Patrick’s Day was made an official Christian feast day in the early 17th century and is observed by the Catholic Church, the Anglican Communion, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the Lutheran Church. The day commemorates Saint Patrick and the arrival of Christianity in Ireland, and celebrates the heritage and culture of the Irish in general. Celebrations generally involve public parades and festivals, céilís, and the wearing of green attire or shamrocks. Christians who belong to liturgical denominations also attend church services and historically the Lenten restrictions on eating and drinking alcohol were lifted for the day, which has encouraged and propagated the holiday’s tradition of alcohol consumption.

Saint Patrick’s Day is a public holiday in the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador, and the British Overseas Territory of Montserrat. It is also widely celebrated by the Irish diaspora around the world, especially in the United Kingdom, Canada, United States, Brazil, Argentina, Australia and New Zealand. Saint Patrick’s Day is celebrated in more countries than any other national festival.

According to the tale, Patrick returned to Ireland to convert the pagan Irish to Christianity. The Declaration says that he spent many years in the northern half of Ireland and redesigned the religious beliefs of thousands. Patrick’s efforts against the religious leaders were eventually turned into a legend in which he drove “snakes” out of Ireland.

Tradition holds that he died on 17 March and was buried at Downpatrick. Over the following centuries, many legends grew up around Patrick and he became Ireland’s most memorable saint.

Conventionally, the Taoiseach presents the U.S. President a Waterford Crystal bowl filled with shamrocks. This ritual began when Irish Ambassador to the U.S. John Hearne sent a box of shamrocks to President Harry S. Truman in 1952. From that moment, it became an annual tradition for the Irish ambassador to present the St Patrick’s Day shamrock to an official in the U.S. President’s administration. However, it was only after the meeting between Taoiseach Albert Reynolds and President Bill Clinton in 1994 that the presenting of the shamrock ceremony became an annual event for the leaders of both countries for St Patrick’s Day.

Needless to say, St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated in many countries and one of the longest-running and largest St. Patrick’s Day parades occurs each year in Montreal, Canada, whose city flag includes a shamrock in lower right corner. The yearly celebration has been organised by the United Irish Societies of Montreal since 1929. The parade has been held yearly without interruption since 1824. St Patrick’s Day itself, however, has been celebrated in Montreal since as far back as 1759 by Irish soldiers in the Montreal Garrison following the British conquest of New France.

In present day, celebrations generally involve public parades and festivals, Irish traditional music sessions, and wearing green clothing, accessories and/or shamrocks. There are also formal gatherings such as banquets and dances, although these were more common in the past. St Patrick’s Day parades began in North America in the 18th century, but did not spread to Ireland until the 20th century. The events have participants from all walks of life, they generally include marching bands, the military, fire brigades, cultural organizations, charitable organizations, voluntary associations, youth groups, fraternities, and so on.

St. Patrick’s Day celebrations have been criticised, particularly for their association with public drunkenness and disorderly conduct. Some argue that the festivities have become too commercialized and have become somewhat cut-rate and have strayed from their original purpose of honouring St Patrick and Irish heritage. Journalist Niall O’Dowd has criticised attempts to recast St Patrick’s Day as a celebration of multiculturalism rather than a celebration of Irishness.

St. Patrick’s Day celebrations have also been criticized for fostering offensive stereotypes of Ireland and the Irish people themselves. An very well known example is the people who partake in dressing in ‘leprechaun outfits’, which are based on derogatory 19th century caricatures of the Irish. On St. Patrick’s Day in 2014, the Ancient Order of Hibernians successfully campaigned to stop major American retailers from selling novelty merchandise that promoted negative Irish stereotypes. This year consider your celebrations and the way you can honor Ireland and Ireland’s beloved Saint Patrick.

Navia Aut Caput: The Tradition of Heads or Tails

We’ve all done it at one point or another, flipped a coin. Whether its to see who gets the last slice of  pizza or decide what you’re going to do on a Friday night. During a coin toss, the coin is thrown into the air and it rotates edge-over-edge several times. Either beforehand or when the coin is in the air, one of the people involved calls “heads” or “tails”, claiming a side of the coin. Depending on custom, the coin may be caught; caught and inverted; or allowed to land on the ground. When the coin comes to rest, the flip is complete and the person whose side is upright is declared the winner.

It is possible for a coin to land on its edge, sometimes by landing up against an object or by getting stuck in the ground. Sometimes, even on a flat surface it is possible for a coin to land on its edge, with a chance of about 1 in 6000 for an American nickel. Angular momentum typically prevents most coins from landing on their edges unsupported if flipped. Such cases in which a coin does land on its edge are rare and in most cases the coin is simply re-flipped.

The coin used for a toss may be any type as long as it has two distinct sides. Larger coins tend to be more popular than smaller ones because they’re easier to see and toss.


Roman Coin

Coin flipping as been used to resolve issues from as early as 7th century BC Rome. The Romans called the activity “navia aut caput”, translating as “ship or head”. Although some historians argue it goes back even further to Ancient Greece before metal coin mintage began, where more often than not, children would cover one side of a shell with black pitch. With the distinct shell side and black pitch side, the shell would be tossed to make the decision.

No matter when the coin toss truly began, people around the globe have been partaking in the games for centuries. Britain’s called it “cross and pile”. The cross was the major design on one side of many coins, and the Pile was the mark created by the hammer used to strike the metal on the other side. In Peru the game was called “cara o sello” or “face or seal”.


Francis Pettygrove

Some big decisions have been made over the years with a coin flip from politics to sports. The name of Portland, OR was decided with a coin flip. Two New England natives wanted to name the city after their hometowns. Asa Lovejoy was from Boston and Francis Pettygrove was from Portland, Maine. The coin tossed in Pettygrove’s favor and the official name became known as Portland. Brothers Wilbur and Orville decided who would be the first to fly their airplane with a flip of a coin. Brother Wilbur won the toss but stalled the plane and it dove into the sand. After a couple days of repairs Orville flew for the first time in history.

Many sports games begin with a coin toss to decide which team goes first. Including American and Australian football. Another popular games that utilize a coin toss to decide the first play is cricket. Major League Baseball once conducted a series of coin flips as a contingency on the last month of its regular season to determine home teams for any potential one-game playoff games that might need to be added to the regular season. Fédération Internationale d’Escrime rules use a coin toss to determine the winner of a fencing match that remains tied at the end of a “sudden death” extra minute of competition. Although in most international matches this is now done electronically by the scoring apparatus

Another common practice for tossing a coin is to use it as an exercise to help yourself make a decision. A technique attributed to Sigmund Freud explained as: “I did not say you should follow blindly what the coin tells you. What I want you to do is to note what the coin indicates. Then look into your own reactions. Ask yourself: Am I pleased? Am I disappointed? That will help you to recognize how you really feel about the matter, deep down inside. With that as a basis, you’ll then be ready to make up your mind and come to the right decision.” The theory behind this is that in the quick second that the coin is in the air it will became apparent what you truly want because you will be wishing for one side of the coin to be revealed as the result. Another supporter of this theory is Danish poet Piet Hein’s who wrote:

A Psychological Tip

Whenever you’re called on to make up your mind,
And you’re hampered by not having any,
The best way to solve the dilemma, you’ll find,
Is simply by spinning a penny.
No—not so that chance shall decide the affair
While you’re passively standing there moping;
But the moment the penny is up in the air,
You suddenly know what you’re hoping.

Whether to decide the fate of a cities name, to realize your true feelings, or to help you and your friends settle a debate on if you’re going bowling or to the movies; flipping a coin is a historical tradition that has helped people make tough decisions for centuries.

Holiday Coin Traditions



We’ve already talked about some of the history of chocolate coins at Christmas, but what about other holiday coin traditions?


800px-Gentile_da_Fabriano_063.jpgIn the original St. Nicholas myth, Nicholas learned of a local family who were extremely poor, but would not accept charity. (In some versions, the family had only daughters, who would be forced to work the streets since the family could not afford dowries for marriage.) Nicholas, a pious and generous man, climbed up on the roof of the family’s home and dropped gold coins down the chimney and into socks that were drying by the fire. Coins were the first “stocking stuffers” as the practice of leaving socks (or shoes) out for St. Nicholas spread around the world.



In many traditions, a coin is slipped into a dessert, pudding, or bread. In the UK, Stir-Up Sunday occurs on the last Sunday before Advent. While the name actually comes from the prayer used in Church of England parishes on that day (which begins with “Stir up, O Lord,”) the day has now become associated with the “stirring up” of Christmas puddings. A coin is dropped into the batter, and each family member gives the mix a stir while wishing on the coin (sneaky parents may use this as a way to find out what their children want for Christmas!) The pudding is stored until Christmas Day; whoever gets the sixpence in the pudding is said to receive good luck during the upcoming year.


1280px-Trutovsky_Kolyadki.jpgMany Eastern European countries celebrate a holiday called Koliada as well as Christmas. Koliada is a time when children go caroling at neighborhood houses, and are rewarded with coins and other small gifts. In Macedonia and Greece, a coin is baked into the Vasilopita cake, which is named in honor of St. Basil, whose celebration is on January 1. Finding the coin brings luck to the one who discovers it, much like the British tradition mentioned above.



During the days of Hanukkah, chocolate coins (though real coins are still used in some communities) are given as “gelt.” The tradition originally called for giving coins to teachers and to workers who might be overlooked the rest of the year, but are now mostly given to children.





Some families hide a pickle ornament on their tree, with a coin or other gift as the reward for finding it.





Whatever your holiday traditions, we wish you a happy holiday season!


Chocolate Coins and Christmas

The other day I was finishing up my Christmas shopping.  I absentmindedly tossed a few mesh bags of chocolate, gold wrapped coins into my cart and went along my merry way.

When I got home I began reviewing my purchases.  The coin enthusiast in me stopped when I got to the “gold coins” to look at them more carefully.  “Are they replicas of real coins?  Can I determine a grade?”I asked myself.  The answer, in my case was “no” to both of these, but they did taste delicious (sorry kids).  Then I got to my final question,  why in the world did I just buy fake, gold wrapped chocolate coins for my children for Christmas?

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“Chocolate Coins (11734099083)” by William Warby from London, England

It turns out there are potentially several reasons we gift chocolate coins to each other at Christmas time.

One theory dates back to the Christmas story found in the bible.  When the wise men went to visit Mary, Joseph and Jesus in Bethlehem, they brought with them gifts fit for a king.  Along with frankincense and myrrh was gold which symbolized virtue and kingship here on earth.  Perhaps this gift carried over to the traditions we have today.


“The visit of the wise-men” by Heinrich Hofmann

The history of the chocolate coins can also be linked back to jolly old Saint Nick who, before taking a job at the North Pole, was the Bishop of Myra in what we now call Turkey.   Saint Nick had inherited a fortune when, as a child, his parents both died.  He was also very shy, but wanted to give to the children of Myra.  One night, he tossed a few gold coins down the chimney of a house with three girls.  One of the girls had just hung her stockings up by the fire to dry and the coins landed right in them!  When word got out that this had happened, children all over the town began leaving their stockings by the fire in hopes that Saint Nick would leave them gold coins as well.  Piero_di_Cosimo_026

In Jewish tradition, gold coins (called “gelt”) play a role in Hanukkah as well.  In the 17th century parents used to give their children coins to pass along to their teachers as a token of gratitude.  Something like an end of the year tip.  Over time, the tradition expanded and parents started giving money to their children to keep as their own.


By liz west (originally posted to Flickr as candy coins) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Regardless of the traditions your family celebrates this time of year, you can be certain that gold coins played a role.  Although I have no plans to put real gold into my kids’ stockings, I will continue to include these gold wrapped chocolate ones .  As they carefully peel back the foil, we will take a minute discuss the many traditions and meanings of Christmas and how they have evolved over time.

What are some of your favorite holiday traditions and can you trace their origins?  Please comment below!

From all of us here at the Stamp and Coin Place, we wish you and your family a Happy Holidays!

The Luck of the Irish

From the Irish potato famine to years of invasion, colonization, exploitation and violent religious conflict, it would seem that the Irish have anything but good luck.  Where then did the phrase “luck of the Irish” originate? – Perhaps with the hope of stumbling across a leprechaun at the end of a rainbow; Or in finding serendipity in the rarity of a four-leaf clover?  Though the origin of the phrase is decidedly unresolved, the “Luck of the Irish” is surely varnished in dark green irony.

The phrase became popularized in America with immigration to the American West in the second half of the 19th century.  Mining fortunes of Irish immigrants such as James Fair, James Flood, John Mackay and William O’Brien known as the “Silver Kings” led to the association of the Irish with good luck.  However, the meaning of this luck is clearly pejorative with the implication that only by sheer luck, as apposed to intelligence, could these “Know-Nothings” succeed.

Colorizing Postcards

Photo postcards used to only be in black and white. While black and white is all well and good, postcard publishers quickly wanted to add a little color to their offerings.

Did you know that some companies specialized in colorizing postcards? Before cards were actually printed in color, greeting cards and postcards were sent off even to different countries to brighten the cards with exotic colors. This started with holidays like Christmas and Easter, but soon grew into a year-round practice.

The first colorizing started in Leith, Germany with a business called Lundy. Lundy started printing business messages in color.


The first color postcards emerged starting in 1893, more than 20 years after the first postcard was published. Soon the color caught on, and everybody wanted color in their postcards! That set the ball rolling for a lucrative color postcard business, making postcards more in-demand than ever before.

Often, publishers sent photographs to India or Italy to be colored. Their exciting colors stood out to consumers. The brighter the colors, the better.

All About Christmas Crackers

Christmas crackers are a traditional Christmas treat in the UK – and they’ve been popular for over 100 years. Fans of vintage collectibles will get a kick out of them. Crackers take center stage at Christmas parties or Christmas dinner. One person grabs each end of the cracker and pull. It’s a literal bang; a tiny strip of chemicals reacts to pressure and gives off the sound of a snap when participants pull the cracker.

What do these crackers contain? Small toys, jokes or paper crowns are traditional.


So how did these crackers start? How did flimsy paper products become so popular?

It all starts with Thomas J. Smith of England, who designed the cracker shape to wrap candy bonbons (sweetmeats) in. But the bonbons were not as big a hit as Smith hoped for, so he started brainstorming other marketing methods. He had already designed the twist candy wrapper we’re familiar with, so he figured he’d try putting something other than bonbons in the middle. At first he tried putting love notes in the wrappers; later he changed the contents to trinkets we’re familiar with today (one of his sons later added the paper crowns and cheaper toys). Australians still call them bonbons based on their original design!

Smith came up with the cracker’s “bang” based on the crackle of logs on a fire. It’s half the fun!

Smith and his family even got their own memorial fountain in London in honor of the invention of Christmas crackers. And over 150 years later, the crackers are still going strong.

Does your family use Christmas crackers? What’s your favorite prize?

A History of Thanksgiving in 3 Minutes

Do you know the history behind one of the most popular American holidays?

The feast in Plymouth was only the start. Let us take you back in time for the real story behind Thanksgiving…

Thanksgiving is commonly attributed to a dinner in Plymouth, 1621, between the Pilgrims and Native Americans, incorporating a tradition from England called Days of Fasting and Days of Thanksgiving. Governor of Plymouth Plantation William Bradford declared a day of thanksgiving for the harvest they reaped, and invited the local Wampanoag Indians.


Due thanks we give and are thankful / for every heaping plateful!

Turkey is the one food that can be connected from this dinner today, as wild turkeys were a regular part of the diet at Plymouth that fall.

Pumpkin pie started its roots from English colonists. Pumpkin was introduced to Europe in the 1500s, added to the tradition of filling crusts with vegetables, and English cookbooks featured pumpkin pie recipes beginning in the 1600s.

It took a long time for the Plymouth feast to spark a regular tradition. In 1789 George Washington declared the first nationwide thanksgiving in America, “by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God,” but only for that year.

According to one source, the author of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” Sarah Josepha Hale pushed to make Thanksgiving a regular holiday, and perhaps as a result of her encouragement Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a formal holiday in 1863. He asked Americans to “set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving.” This was during the Civil War, a time when giving thanks was much needed.

Later, Roosevelt and Congress officially set Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November to cater to what every American’s mind is really on this time of year: to extend the Christmas shopping season. Black Friday, anyone?Thanksgiving_1900

Today, the President of the United States pardons a turkey every year right before the holiday, and that turkey will be free to roam farmland freely. In fact, the first recorded event of pardoning a turkey was not out of sympathy for the turkey but because of the turkey’s smaller size. President Kennedy sent his gift turkey back from the National Turkey Federation, saying “We’ll just let this one grow.”