St. Patrick's Day traditions decoded: The meaning behind shamrocks, leprechauns, and more

Motorcyclists in a St. Patrick's Day parade (Mel Evans)
March 16, 2014 9:54:38 PM PDT
It wouldn't be St. Patrick's Day without a deluge of little green men in striped tights, pots of gold, and shamrocks. But what's the story behind all these eclectic symbols? We break it down for you:

1. Who or what are leprechauns?

Leprechauns today are small, cute green-clad men usually bedecked in top hats and carrying a pint of their favorite brew. They originally come from Irish folklore: the first known mention of a leprechaun is from the 8th century and comes from the word luchorpan, meaning "little body", to describe water spirits. Leprechauns are said to be elusive creatures but if captured, they have the power to grant humans three wishes in exchange for their release. They are close cousins of the fairy Cluricaune, a cunning spirit who drinks, smokes, and haunts cellars. (Sound like your last St. Patrick's Day?)

Bonus: Leprechauns love gold coins, and mischievously try to steal treasure. That's why you got a bunch of chocolate coins on St. Patrick's Day growing up — if you didn't, go back and redo your childhood.

2. Who is St. Patrick, anyway?

Poor St. Paddy (not Patty, that's short for Patricia) wasn't even Irish. He was born in Britain, which in his birth year of 387 AD was still part of the Roman Empire. To cut a long history lesson short, he encountered lots of hardships as he tried to convert people to Christianity. He was captured by Irish pagans and then grew to love them, vowing that he would return to Ireland one day after he escaped. He baptized, confirmed, and ordained priests, and he erected schools and monasteries. Thousands came into the Church under his direction. He accomplished all these activities in less than 30 years, during which time the whole island nation of Ireland was converted. THE WHOLE ISLAND NATION. He died on March 17, 461 ? which is why we celebrate the day. (Whether he'd approve of green beer is another story.)

3. So shamrocks, four-leaf clovers — same thing, right?

Not quite. The word shamrock means "young clover" — and refers to the regular three-leaf variety. If you believe the legend, St. Patrick used the three-leaf clover to explain the Christian Holy Trinity to the people of Ireland. It has since become a symbol of national pride. As early as the 17th century, people wore shamrocks on their coats for St. Paddy's and ended the day by "drowning the shamrock" ? placing it in a glass of whiskey before chugging the lot.

Four-leaf clovers have been prized since the time of the Druids because of their rarity (they say only 1 in every 10,000 clovers has that extra appendage). The leaves are commonly thought to represent faith, hope, love, and luck.

4. Why do we wear green?

To make sure we don't get pinched, you exclaim! More on that later. (Also, stop exclaiming, you're freaking out your coworkers.) According to some accounts, people used to wear blue on March 17, but in the 17th century, that started to change. Ireland is known as the "emerald isle" for its lush green landscape, and green is the color of spring. Therefore, it's only fitting that we don the color to celebrate.

5. Why do we drink Guinness?

This is more of a rhetorical question, and there's no myth involved: about 3 MILLION pints of the dark Irish stout are downed every March 17. Some say you have to be a real Irishman to drink the stuff, but many Americans disprove that every year. For the perfect pour, tilt the glass at 45 degrees until it is three-quarters full, then let the beer settle before filling the glass completely to the top.

6. Why do we pinch people who don't wear green?

According to legend, wearing green makes you invisible to leprechauns ? and being the fun-loving pranksters they are, they'd take the first opportunity to pinch you if they saw you. Even if you can't stand green or are too much of a grinch to celebrate the holiday, wear a pin or a headband to avoid bruises the next day.

Whether you're dressing up in full Irish garb or just relaxing with a mug of frothy Guinness, you'll be the life of the party with all your newfound facts about St. Patrick's Day. Just be sure to dole them out in small doses, or you may get pinched for different reasons.


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