St. Patrick’s Day is approaching and people all around the world are picking out their green clothing, preparing to dye their beer green, and are whistling old Irish tunes…but do you know what the traditions of St. Patrick’s Day represent? Here’s the story behind the symbols:
PATRICK AND THE SNAKES
St. Patrick lived in the fifth century and is the patron saint of Ireland and its national apostle. He was born in Roman Britain and then kidnapped and brought to Ireland as a slave when he was 16 years old. It is said he banished the snakes from Ireland and brought Christianity to the island.
The legend of him banishing the snakes isn’t very likely, however. The island nation was never home to any snakes. The concept of “banishing the snakes” is most likely a metaphor for the eradication of pagan ideology from Ireland and the fact that within 200 years of his arrival, Ireland was completely Christianized.
Did you know that if you don’t wear green on St. Patrick’s Day, leprechauns can see you and then they might pinch you? That said, the color first associated with the day was not green. St. Patrick was associated with the color blue, but in the 17th century that began to change, because green is one of the colors of Ireland’s tri-color flag. This has continued on to the “Emerald Isle,” and the lush green landscapes of Ireland, the color of spring, and even the shamrock.
These tiny gold-loving fairies were originally called “lobaircin,” which means “small-bodied fellow.” The belief is that they would use their magical powers to serve good or evil. In Celtic folktales, they were cranky and responsible for mending the shoes of other fairies. They were known for their trickery, which they used to protect their pots of gold. In Ireland, they have their own holiday on May 13th, but they do love to come out and party on St. Patrick’s Day!
CORNED BEEF or IRISH BACON
While cabbage was a staple of the Irish diet, Corned Beef was not. They would traditionally eat the cabbage with Irish bacon, but when Irish immigrants came to America they couldn’t afford that, so they substituted it with corned beef…a cheaper alternative they picked up from Jewish immigrants.
The shamrock, also called the “seamroy” was a sacred plant in ancient Ireland. It symbolized the rebirth of spring. Later, as the English began to seize Irish land, the Irish protested the laws against use of their language and practice of their religion by wearing the shamrock as a symbol of pride in their heritage.
After the English conquered the irish and forbade the use of their language, the Irish turned to music to help them remember important events and cling to their heritage. It also stirred emotion and galvanized people, so the English monarchy, including Queen Elizabeth I, outlawed the music…even so far as decreeing that all artists and pipers were to be hanged on the spot. That said, music has always been a staple of Celtic culture, where religion, legend, and history have been passed on through stories and songs. Today, the music has worldwide popularity, with groups like the Chieftains, Clancy Brothers, and even the Pogues having made the style popular. They might use the fiddle, the uilleann pipes (which is an elaborate bagpipe,) a tin whistle (usually made of nickel-silver, brass, or aluminum,) the ocarina (which is often made of clay,) and the bodhran, which is an ancient type of frame drum which was used in warfare.