Have you ever played the telephone game? You know the one where everyone lines up and a phrase is spoken to the first person in line who then repeats it to the next person and so on? By the time it gets to the end, the phrase is nowhere near what the original one was. That is sort of how some traditions are changed over the years. The symbolism and stories behind St. Patrick’s Day are a whole lot more powerful than the watered-down version we celebrate today.
Before St. Patrick’s arrival to Ireland, the shamrock was used as a pagan symbol for rebirth and eternal life. The three-leafed plant represented the “Triple Goddesses” of Brigid, Ériu, and the Morrigan. St. Patrick is credited for taking the pagan symbolism and giving it new meaning. He used the shamrock as a symbol of the Holy Trinity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Each leaf of the plant is really three leaves connected as one.
After St. Patrick’s death on March 17, the people of Ireland would wear a shamrock in their lapel in honor of him. In the 1798 rebellion, shamrocks were used to make a political statement. Soldiers wore uniforms in the color of green to get attention. Somewhere down the road the image was changed to a four-leaf shamrock that represented good luck. It also became a symbol of Irish pride.
The Color Green
Most drawings of the saint use the color blue, not green as we see today. It is possible that green became more a direct symbol due to the color of the shamrock and the overall color of the country of Ireland. In addition to wearing the shamrock on St. Patrick’s Day, many in Ireland started to wear green as a symbol of pride for their home country.
The Irish were used to identifying images of fire as a symbol of honoring their pagan gods. St. Patrick used the symbol of a bonfire to represent the True God and celebrate Easter.
The sun was a very strong image pagan symbol. St. Patrick merged the image of the sun with an image of a cross as he wanted the cross to feel less foreign to them. It became the Celtic cross.
A long held belief is that the reason that there are no snakes on the island of Ireland is that they had all been banished by St. Patrick. The truth of the matter is that no snakes ever existed there due to the fact that the land would be too cold for them to survive in Ireland. The legend states that Patrick drove out the snakes after being attacked by them during a 40-day fast. Some have suggested that the image of snakes was actually representing symbolism of the Druids.
Leprechauns are sometimes used as a symbol for St. Patrick’s Day, but really shouldn’t be. They have their own story that has nothing to do with the priest. Originally, it is said that leprechauns wore red, not green, but after years of having the color green be a symbol of the country, the leprechauns apparently changed their clothes!
What other myths or legends have you heard about St. Patrick’s Day?