5 St. Patrick's Day Traditions and Symbols Demystified

Updated on March 24, 2018

Who Was St. Patrick?

St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland whose holiday day is celebrated in March, was not Irish. He was born into wealth in Britain around the end of the fourth century. Although his father was a deacon, says History.com, “there is no evidence that Patrick came from a particularly religious family”.

At 16, he was kidnapped by Irish marauders who attacked his family estate and he was transported to Ireland where he spent years in captivity working as a shepherd. Patrick was "outdoors and away from people,” the site says, “lonely and afraid he turned to his religion for solace, becoming a devout Christian”.

After his escape back to Britain, Patrick began his formal training as a priest, only to return to a mostly pagan Ireland to convert and minister. It is said that Patrick tried hard to incorporate traditional ritual into lessons of Christianity. The Irish culture being steeped in legend and myth helped bring forth the image of St. Patrick as we know him today.


5 St. Patrick's Day Traditions and Legends

Now that you know a little bit about the holiday’s namesake, let’s take a look at five traditions associated with St. Patrick’s Day in an effort to discover their origin.

1. The Shamrock – It is said that St. Patrick used the shamrock to explain the difficult concept of the Holy Trinity (The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost). Although according to irishcultureandcustoms.com, this teaching utilizing the plant has never been evidenced in Patrick’s writings. The site goes on to say that "it wasn't until the 17th century that it became the custom to wear the shamrock on the feast of Ireland's patron saint.” Today, the shamrock is an established symbol of good luck.

2. The Leprechaun – According to Time.com, “a leprechaun is a diminutive fairy, a supernatural creature about whom tales were passed down within the rich history of Irish oral storytelling”. According to History.com, “leprechauns had nothing to do with St. Patrick or the celebration of St. Patrick's Day, a Catholic holy day. In 1959, Walt Disney released a film called Darby O'Gill & the Little People, which introduced America to a very different sort of leprechaun than the cantankerous little man of Irish folklore. This cheerful, friendly leprechaun is a purely American invention, but has quickly evolved into an easily recognizable symbol of both St. Patrick's Day and Ireland in general”.


3. Snakes – It is also a legend that St. Patrick banished snakes from Ireland. Phillip Freeman of Luther College in a National Geographic article suggests that “when Patrick drives the snakes out of Ireland, it is symbolically saying he drove the old, evil, pagan ways out of Ireland [and] brought in a new age," It is true the article goes on to explain, that there are no snakes in Ireland, but that is purely environmental (surrounded by icy ocean waters – too cold for migration) and not a result of Patrick.

4. The Color Green – Wearing Green on St. Patrick’s Day most likely comes from the color most associated with “the Emerald Isle, the green in the Irish flag and the clover,” says a Huffington Post article. The color originally associated with the holiday was blue, but over time that changed. The article goes on to say that according to legend, if you wear green, a leprechaun can’t pinch you because you are invisible.

Speaking of green, nothing gets more green than the city of Chicago. Says a site about the Chicago River: "For the past 43 years the Chicago River turns green for the St. Patrick’s Day Parade celebration. One would ask how this is different from the rest of the year when the river is always a murky shade of green. The difference is both significant and breathtaking because the color green is identical to the greens of Ireland from where it got its name 'The Emerald Isle'".

Chicago Green River

5. Drinking Green Beer – The drinking of green beer, says Michelle Daily in Examiner.com, “most likely stemmed from the tradition of “drowning the shamrock”, in which men would go to their local pub and drop a shamrock into their whiskey and beer and drink it down including the shamrock for luck”. Daily says the scarcity of shamrocks is probably why dye is now used in beer on St. Patrick's Day.


So there you have it! And as fun and jovial as it all sounds, it is a far cry from the serious, religious nature of Patrick himself as he says in one of his own letters about Ireland—he came because of and for the glory of God leaving behind his kinfolk and his noble rank. “Thus”, says Patrick, “ I am a servant in Christ to a foreign nation for the unspeakable glory of life everlasting which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Patrick preached and converted all over Ireland for 40 years. He reached out to man and wrote of his love for God. After years of living in poverty, traveling and enduring much suffering he died March 17, 1461.

Perhaps this is why the Irish love him and celebrations and festivities in his name have spread the world over. Erin go Bragh!

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Questions & Answers


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      • carlajbehr profile image

        Carla J Behr 5 years ago from NW PA

        Thank you Torrilynn - much appreciated!

      • torrilynn profile image

        torrilynn 5 years ago

        Hi Carla,

        thanks for this hub and the actually facts behind

        St. Patricks Day and why we celebrate it the way

        that we do.

        Voted up