When we think of St. Patrick’s Day traditions, we think of leprechauns’ pots of gold at the end of the rainbow, pints of Guinness, bagpipers marching, and symbols like four-leaf clovers. But how did these traditions begin, and will they really bring you good luck? Originally a religious feast honoring the patron saint of Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day has turned into a day to celebrate all things Irish. Surprisingly, the way the holiday is celebrated in Ireland looks a little different, as some of the customs we associate with it are Irish American traditions. But either way, we can hope a little luck of the Irish rubs off on us when we partake in them.
Looking for Four-Leaf Clovers
The good luck symbols of the common shamrock, which has three leaves, and the much more elusive four-leaf clover aren’t the same thing. “Biologically speaking, four-leaf clovers are extremely rare—usually they only have three clovers, and a fourth clover is a mutation,” says Christine Kinealy, PhD, director of Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute and professor of history at Quinnipiac University. “There are likely 10,000 three-leaf clovers for every four-leaf clover.” Since they are so rare, finding one makes one feel lucky, and there may be no better St. Patrick’s Day tradition than scouring a patch of lawn for one. As Scientific American explains, using those odds, you’d need to scan a clover field of about 13 square feet to find one with four leaves—totally doable! And instead of counting each leaf, try scanning the clovers quickly: Your brain will be able to notice deviations in the pattern you see.
Wearing O’ the Green
It’s considered a lucky St. Patrick’s Day tradition in Ireland to don the color green, as the hue symbolizes Ireland’s lush landscape. “Ireland itself is even known as the ‘Green Isle’ or the ‘Emerald Isle,’” Kinealy says. But Americans might be surprised to learn that the color also has a political history behind it. “The wearing of green was a political and cultural identity movement in Ireland, and a stand against [British] colonialism,” Kinealy says. The Irish ballad “Wearing of the Green” laments the unsuccessful rebel uprising of 1798, and the color remained symbolic for Irish nationalism leading up to the country’s independence in 1922. “In the Irish flag, which was first brought to Ireland in 1848, the green in the tricolor represents Catholics,” Kinealy says. To show your support of the republic, you can also say, “Erin go bragh,” a phrase that has its roots in Irish rebellion. But if the green of the flag represents the Catholics, what about the other hues in the tricolor? The orange of the Irish flag represents Protestants, and the white symbolizes peace between them. Although all three colors are part of the flag and Irish heritage, it’s still advisable to avoid wearing orange on St. Patrick’s Day, as the color is historically associated with those who supported the British crown before the country became independent.
Pinching Those Not Wearing Green
Another reason to wear green for luck is that legend has it leprechauns can’t see you if you’re wearing the verdant color. And if they see you, they will pinch you! Likewise, tradition says you can pinch someone on St. Patrick’s Day who isn’t wearing green—but this may be more an Americanization than a true Irish custom. In fact, leprechauns originally wore red in Irish folklore. “Pinching those not wearing green appears to be an American invention,” says Kinealy. If a pinch seems a little painful even in jest, try a few fun St. Patricks Day jokes instead.
Kissing Someone Who is Irish
No doubt, you’ve heard the phrase, “Kiss me, I’m Irish”—or at least seen it on a T-shirt. Where did this tradition come from? Although there appears to be no definitive source, the prevailing theory is that the saying refers to kissing the Blarney Stone at Blarney Castle in Ireland, which is said to give the lucky smoocher the gift of the gab—so kissing an Irish person is the next best thing. (Or just try out some St. Patrick’s Day quotes to get the conversation started.) But although modern Americans may consider the Irish lucky, that may not be historically accurate. “The saying, ‘the luck of the Irish’ is not of Irish origin—knowing the history, Ireland was typically unlucky,” Kinealy says. “In addition to the Great Hunger, the Irish poor witnessed many periods of starvation. When they immigrated from Ireland [to America], they were discriminated against and there were many stereotypes surrounding them.” Still, Irish pride (or Irish-American pride) may rub off on you, no matter your heritage, on St. Paddy’s Day.
Attending a St. Patrick’s Day Parade
Seeing bagpipers marching past a crowd wearing green and waving Irish flags seems the quintessential St. Paddy’s event for those lucky enough to experience it, but this is another tradition that actually originated in the United States—or rather, the American colonies. One of the first St. Patrick’s Day parades is thought to have taken place in New York City in 1762, among Irish soldiers serving in the British army before the Revolutionary War. Later, when Irish immigrants who had flocked to the US during the Great Famine in the 19th century were discriminated against in their new home, they used the parades to encourage and support pride in their heritage and culture. The American St. Paddy’s celebrations were a way for the Irish diaspora to connect with their homeland, even for subsequent generations who had never been there. Make sure you also read up on these St. Patrick’s Day memes that are just too relatable.
“Letting the Devil Out” of Irish Soda Bread
Many variations of so-called “Irish soda bread” made with eggs, butter, raisins, seeds, and sugar are eaten in America today for St. Paddy’s Day. But if you want to keep to the traditional Irish soda bread recipe, use only four ingredients: flour (often whole-meal flour), baking soda (called “bread soda” in Ireland), buttermilk, and salt. Historically, this recipe could be made by anyone, thanks to readily available ingredients including soda instead of yeast for leavening; and because it could be cooked in a cast-iron pot over a flame as opposed to an oven, which most people didn’t have. But for the bread to be lucky, you must cut a cross on the top “to let the devil out,” as well as to release steam during cooking, a superstition that both the Irish and Irish Americans hold, Kinealy says. “In both Christian and pagan traditions, the cross is meant to ward off the devil and protect the household. But the baking of soda bread was not really a custom until the late 1800s.” Baking Irish soda bread without marking the cross on it could could be one of the surprising things you didn’t know were considered bad luck.
Not Eating Green Food
Dying food (or beer, or rivers, or anything else) green is actually not an Irish pastime—instead, it’s one of the different examples of how St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated around the world. This is because in Ireland, green food has some decidedly unlucky associations in the country’s history. “Green food is not an Irish tradition, possibly due to the historical trauma of the Great Famine, when Irish folk literally had no choice but to eat grass in an attempt to survive, then they would often die of starvation with green-colored mouths from eating grass,” Kinealy says. “American celebrations of St. Patrick’s Day likely use green food and drink to celebrate the ‘greenness’ of Ireland, i.e. the Emerald Isle.” So forget the green beer—if you want to imbibe the Irish way, sample some of the thick Irish, Guinness, instead.
“Drowning the Shamrock”
Of the most famous good luck charms from around the world is the shamrock. Legend has it that the good luck of this magical three-leaved plant began when it was a revered pagan symbol. The missionary Saint Patrick is said to have later used its three leaves to explain the Holy Trinity to the pagans (whether he actually did so is up for debate). Today, however, the shamrock remains a secular token of good fortune. In Ireland, it’s considered lucky to “drown” the shamrock. “Traditionally, the shamrock was dunked into a glass of whiskey, the whiskey was then drunk, and the shamrock at the bottom of the glass thrown over the drinker’s left shoulder,” Kinealy says. “Allegedly, it was St. Patrick himself who first dunked the shamrock in the glass of whiskey, after wearing it during his feast day—but this is highly unlikely as he died on March 17, before the day was celebrated.”
St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland is not traditionally the raucous celebration it is in America—and it might bring you better fortune (and save you a hangover) to not use the holiday as an excuse to overindulge. St. Patrick’s Day falls during Lent, a religious season of sacrifice, although the rules were traditionally relaxed for this feast day. Up until the 1970s, however, pubs were closed in Ireland on St. Paddy’s Day, and celebrations usually included a trip to church. So how did St. Patrick’s Day become a drinking holiday? Right here in the USA with Irish American celebrations, which soon came to perpetuate the stereotype of the “drunken Irish.” Then in a strange reversal of tradition, the Irish government was actually inspired by American celebrations to create a multi-day St. Patrick’s festival in 1995 to boost tourism. But not everyone is happy about the associations between St. Patrick’s Day and drinking. “There is a large movement to stop associating the day and the Irish with drinking—and now a number of ‘Sober’ parades,” Kinealy says.
Eating Irish bacon
Although there might seem like nothing more Irish than eating corned beef and cabbage on St. Paddy’s Day, this meal is actually not an Irish tradition at all. Corned beef on St. Patrick’s Day is an American adaptation of the holiday, Kinealy says. In Ireland of yore, it would have been unlucky to kill cows, which were mainly used for dairy. “In Gaelic Ireland, cattle were symbols of the wealthy and were only killed when they were too old or were no longer able to produce milk,” Kinealy says. “There were more pigs kept in Ireland than cows, so more pork and bacon was consumed than beef.” On St. Patrick’s Day, cured pork (Irish bacon) was more likely to be eaten in Ireland. So how did the corned beef association come about? Irish immigrants in America may have adopted the meal from their Jewish neighbors.
Wearing Blue for Historical Accuracy
Instead of green, you could also celebrate Ireland by wearing blue, which was the background color of the first coat of arms when the Kingdom of Ireland was created by England’s King Henry VIII; the hue also has earlier links to a figure in Irish mythology, Flaitheas Éireann, who wore blue. Early images of St. Patrick show him wearing blue; later, the Order of St. Patrick knighthood also wore blue. Even today, “the national color of Ireland is blue—St. Patrick’s Blue,” Kinealy says. The color appears on the Constitution of Ireland and the Presidential Standard flag as in the old coat of arms: a golden harp on a dark blue background. Ireland is a country of legends, myths, and hidden history, which visitors can learn more about at the most mysterious sites in Ireland.
Celebrating Irish Culture
To celebrate the Ireland that actually exists on St. Patrick’s Day—not just the fantasy created around the holiday—take the opportunity to learn about more real Irish traditions. Sing an Irish ballad, listen to traditional Irish folk music, take an Irish dance class, read Irish poetry, or even try speaking a bit of the Irish language. In doing so, you’ll become lucky not for some magical reason, but because you will be blessed to have experienced the rich culture of this fascinating country. You can end the day by cozying up with your favorite Irish movies, ones that celebrate true Irish traditions as well.