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March 15, 2005 > Leprechauns, Clovers and a Saint

Leprechauns, Clovers and a Saint

by Susana Nuñez

Each year, Americans of every background don green attire and attend festivals and parades in celebration of St. Patrick's Day. Many, however, are unaware of the holiday's origins or why they prepare to fight off potential pinches with the color green. This Irish holiday has undergone drastic changes over the years culminating in the celebration we know today. Along with gaining a new international perspective, the introduction of American elements has led to its stray from strict, conservative roots. St. Patrick's Day has turned a new leaf (or more appropriately, clover) and is celebrated with a much lighter and more playful tone than originally intended. These modifications may cause one to ask, how did icons such as shamrocks and leprechauns come to be synonymous with the celebration of Ireland's patron saint?

Traditionally, the shamrock, or three-leafed clover, has symbolized the rebirth of spring. In the 17th century, it became a symbol of Irish nationalism during a time of turmoil when the country was under English rule. St. Patrick is believed to have used the shamrock to symbolize the Christian doctrine of the trinity. Originally from Britain, St. Patrick, or Maewyn Succat, was sent to Ireland to preach to the country's Christians as well as to assist in converting the Irish who practiced a nature-based, polytheistic religion. Since the shamrock was considered sacred at the time, it was the perfect tool for St. Patrick to use on his mission to convert Ireland.

Leprechauns, on the other hand, were not introduced to the holiday until its arrival in the United States. In Celtic folklore, these grumpy individuals worked for fairies as shoe menders. They were also well-known for the trickery they used to protect their much desired pots of gold. This all changed with the 1959 release of Walt Disney's film Darby O'Gill & the Little People, which portrayed a happy and friendly leprechaun. This version of the leprechaun was an American spin on the cranky little men of Celtic folklore, and it was this cheerful fellow that quickly became a recognizable symbol of Ireland and, consequently, St. Patrick's Day.

In addition to Americans' introduction of the leprechaun into the holiday, it was in the United States that the first St. Patrick's Day parade was held. On March 17, 1762, Irish soldiers serving in the English military marched through New York City in observance of their native land's patron saint. Irish patriotism grew in the States and the parade became an annual event featuring the traditional music of bagpipes and drums. Although the religious roots of St. Patrick's Day have long been a part of modern-day Ireland, it wasn't until 1995 that the Irish government successfully began to use the holiday to attract tourists. Whether you're in Dublin, Ireland or the Bay Area, St. Patrick's Day events bring together people of all backgrounds year after year.

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