Being told to put on a green sweater and enjoy some corned beef seems like a completely random demand on most days — but tomorrow is St. Patrick’s Day, so don your finest verdant vestments. Ever wonder why we do the things we do on St. Patrick’s Day? You’re not alone. An originally religious Irish holiday has become a day of parades, beer, leprechauns, and wearing green in the United States — but how did that happen? Learn more about the origins of St. Patrick’s Day traditions and why we celebrate them the way we do below.
What is St. Patrick’s Day about?
It’s not about green beer — and really, it never was. The day celebrates Roman citizen Maewyn Succat who was kidnapped at age 16 and taken to Ireland as a slave in the 4th century. He escaped, came back to Ireland later in life as a priest, and changed his name to Patrick, which comes from the Latin word for “father.” He was responsible for converting many Irish people to Christianity; he established schools, churches, and monasteries, and even inspired legends that he drove all the snakes (common symbols of Satan) out of the country.
The celebrations began in the 15th century when the Church held a feast honoring St. Patrick, then Ireland’s Patron Saint, on March 17 and it became a popular holiday in the United States with the emigration of Irish natives.
The Meaning Behind St. Patrick’s Day Traditions and Symbols
As interesting as the background of St. Patrick’s Day is, it has nothing to do with lucky charms and leprechauns. So why are those such a big part of the day? Keep reading to find out.
Shamrocks, or (three-leaf) clovers, have been a symbol of Irish culture for a long time. According to Celtish history site Ireland Calling, the Celts (Irish ancestors) believed that three was nature’s most important number. It represented the phases of the moon; the earth, sky, and sea; and the phases of man, childhood, adulthood, and old age. Because clovers grow in abundance in Ireland, and they have three leaves, they were considered deeply important and symbolic. It’s also believed that St. Patrick used the shamrock’s three leaves to demonstrate the Holy Trinity — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Because shamrocks are common in Ireland, it’s considered rare — or good luck — to find one with four leaves.
Though the word “leprechaun” may conjure images of jaunty little red-headed men in green clothes (perhaps coming after your bowl of breakfast cereal), their origins are a little more insidious. They originated as eighth-century water spirits called “luchorpán,” or “small bodies,” says Irish Central. The legend changed over time, and they became drunkard fairies that haunted basements and made fairy shoes. Folk tales said you could tell a leprechaun was nearby if you heard the tiny tapping of a cobbler’s hammer. They hoard their wealth in places that are impossible for others to find — like at the end of rainbows.
If you catch one, they’ll grant you a wish, but they’re notoriously tricky, so be careful what you wish for. One legend has it that a man caught a leprechaun and wished to be the king of a beautiful tropical island. The leprechaun granted his wish… by deserting him on an island all alone.
Speaking of leprechauns, they apparently can’t see the color green, so wearing it protects you from their trickery. Others say that green represents Ireland’s lush countryside. But the color also has roots in Irish political history: the green in the Irish flag represents Catholicism, and wearing it represented a divorce from British colonialism and Protestantism in Ireland, says expert Christine Kinealy. She notes that the orange in the flag symbolizes Protestants, and the white represents cooperation and peace. Be that as it may, it’s best not to wear orange on St. Paddy’s, since the Irish might interpret that as you supporting the British threat to their independence.
Pinching Those Who Don’t Wear Green
We’re not here to justify the pinching of anyone — regardless of what color clothes they’re wearing. But owner of the Irish Cultural Museum in New Orleans, Luke Ahearn, says that pinching those who refuse to conform to the green rule is punishment for not putting their Irish pride on display. If your peers don’t pinch you, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re safe: Leprechauns can’t see green, so if you’re wearing any other color, you could be susceptible to a leprechaun pinch, as well. We don’t know what a leprechaun pinch feels like, but we’d prefer not to find out.
We hope you’re feeling adequately prepped for St. Paddy’s. Good luck avoiding leprechauns (and pinchers.) Erin go Bragh!