Celebrating St. Patrick’s Day, The History Behind The Traditions

When I was a kid I spent days building the perfect trap for a leprechaun. I checked out every book on magical creatures and mythology I could find, just so I could try and find the perfect bait. The night before St. Patrick’s Day I carefully set my trap and bait it with whatever I thought would be best that year. The next morning I’d find my trap sprung and hoping for a Leprechaun I would lift the lid, only to find a handful of chocolate coins and a “better luck next time” note. I also remember preparing my outfit the night before, trying to decide on how much green I should wear. 

When I got older I realized that my entire wardrobe was green, and so St. Patrick’s Day was the only day I didn’t wear green… but I never got pinched. It may have been cheating but green eyes made me exempt from the typical punishments.

Saint Patrick’s Day Traditions

Have you ever wondered why we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day the way that we do? You’re in luck! I have gathered all of the St. Patrick’s Day traditions into one fun post. If you missed my previous posts I have links for all of them at the bottom of the post.

Shamrocks

Saint Patrick

Perhaps the most widely associated symbol of St. Patrick’s Day is the Shamrock, specifically the four leaf variety. A four leaf clover is a mutation of the shamrock, it happens in 1 out of every 10,000 shamrocks.

According to an Irish legend, Saint Patrick used the shamrock to teach the pagans about the Holy Trinity. Each of the 3 leaves represented an aspect of the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost). The extra leaf on a four leaf clover was said to represent God’s Grace. 

Because of this association with Saint Patrick many people wore shamrocks pinned to their clothing. Over time this morphed into wearing green to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. For a more detailed explanation about this phenomenon, take a peek at my previous post A Brief History of St. Patrick’s Day.

Every year in honor of St. Patrick’s Day and Irish-American Heritage Month, the Irish Prime Minister meets with the U.S. President to give him a bowl of shamrocks. A tradition that started in 1952 with Harry S. Truman.

Corned Beef And Cabbage

This particular tradition is more popular in the United States than anywhere else. This is due to the fact that the tradition started in America. When Irish-American immigrants in New York tried to find Irish Bacon to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day they couldn’t find it. If they did find it, they weren’t always able to afford it. They asked their Jewish neighbors if they knew of something similar…. And corned beef was the answer. Cabbage and potatoes are staples of the Irish diet and so they continue to be a part of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations.

Green Foods And Drinks

Green Food For St. Patrick's Day

In addition to corned beef, cabbage, and potatoes you have probably also enjoyed another time honored St. Patrick’s Day tradition … green food or drinks. From shamrock shakes to green beer and all the food in between, it seems like there is an infinite number of things being dyed green for St. Patrick’s Day. But why? Where did this trend come from?

The history behind this trend is surprisingly hard to pin down. One theory states that this is a reference to the potato famine of the 1840’s which devastated Ireland. People were so hungry they ate grass, which dyed their mouths green.

A folk tradition called “drowning the shamrock” may be responsible for the fascination with green beverages. At the end of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations a shamrock would be put in the bottom of a cup. The cup is filled with whisky, beer, or cider and drunk as a toast to Ireland, Saint Patrick, and those present. The shamrock would be either consumed with the drink or thrown over the shoulder to ensure good luck for the coming year. 

At any rate, this St. Patrick’s Day tradition is alive and well. It’s something that I do on a small scale with my kids by making green pancakes for breakfast. If you are looking for a sweet treat, try this Shamrock Frozen Hot Chocolate (it’s super yummy!).

Irish Soda Bread

Irish Soda Bread

A St. Patrick’s Day tradition in my house is Irish soda bread, it’s quite honestly my favorite food tradition for the holiday. In Ireland, soda bread is an everyday bread that is baked without sugar and usually with whole wheat flour. Baking soda reacts with the acidic buttermilk causing it to rise instantly, without kneading or yeast. It tastes amazing and is great with gravy, soup, or even warm with butter.

Wearing Green

This is the most famous of the St. Patrick’s Day traditions. Wearing green on the 17th of March has become a worldwide tradition. I did an entire post on why we wear green for St. Patrick’s Day, so this is just a quick overview. You can find the full post here if you want more information. 

Originally green was worn to symbolize the conversion to Catholicism. A popular phrase of the time was “wearing the green” which referenced wearing shamrocks pinned to your clothes. Over the years the phrase became re-interpreted to mean literally wearing green. In some traditions green is worn to hide from the fair folk and leprechauns. Green has come to symbolize Ireland’s lush landscape and is the unofficial national color. 

Pinching

The most painful of the St. Patrick’s Day traditions, in my mind, is the pinch. People who are caught not wearing green on the holiday by their friends are to receive a pinch. If you are pinched mistakenly, you have the right to pinch (or in the case of my early school memories, punch) the offending person back. 

This is most likely linked to a bit of Irish folklore that states that the fair folk can’t see anyone who wears green. The fair folk were commonly thought of as mischievous, and would run about pinching people. By pinching your friends and family who weren’t wearing green you were reminding them to be aware of the fair folk. 

Leprechauns 

Almost as popular as the shamrock in St. Patrick’s Day tradition is the Leprechaun. The leprechaun is a member of the fair folk in Irish folklore, and are depicted as little bearded men who wear a coat and partake in acts of mischief. Leprechauns are usually solitary creatures who spend their time mending shoes. They often have hidden caches of gold at the end of the rainbow. When captured by a human, the Leprechaun must grant three wishes to earn their freedom. The appearance and traditions surrounding the Leprechauns have changed over the years, and the modern depictions are far from the original myths.

Leprechaun Traps

A beloved St. Patrick’s Day tradition for elementary school kids across the United States is the Leprechaun Trap. This is constructed with a shoe box and painted/colored green to blend in with the environment and the holiday. A rock or other bait item will be painted gold to attract the Leprechaun and placed inside of the trap. On the night before St. Patrick’s Day the traps are set and the next morning excited children check to see if they get three wishes from a Leprechaun. Teachers and parents will spring the trap and leave behind evidence of the Leprechaun. This could be chocolate coins, money, gold or green glitter, and even a note. 


What St. Patrick’s Day traditions do you celebrate with your family? Have you ever built a leprechaun trap? Cooked a green colored meal? I’d love to hear about it! Tell me your stories in the comments.

If you have a bit of history that you’d like featured, contact me, I’d love to research it!

More Information On St. Patrick’s Day

If you would like to read more about St. Patrick’s Day, check out these other blog posts:

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