Countdown to St. Patrick’s Day – What’s With All the Damn Green?

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When I was growing up St. Patrick’s Day was never a very big deal for me. Being neither Catholic nor overwhelmingly Irish the day carried no traditional meaning for my family. (I’m a statistically typical American mix of German-Irish-English.) I do remember the seemingly random spring day would come along on which I had to wear green else risk a pinching at school. It wasn’t until early adulthood that the now all important drinking aspect of the day crept into my consciousness and it dawned on me that perhaps this day demanded a bit more of my attention.

I’ll get to the green in a bit but let’s talk about that drinking. While I’m a “days that end in ‘Y’” type of drinker it’s impossible to ignore the cultural requirement to drink on this day. I’d always thought that this was all about mixing the idea of embracing one’s inner Irishness – even if one possesses no Irishness whatsoever – and the stereotype of the drunken Irishman. Beyond that I hadn’t really given this aspect of the day too much consideration although it now certainly receives my honor and strict observance. But according to Bridget Nancy Margaret O’Flaherty of Irish Culture and Customs, who is the source for most of the facts presented in this post, this day was one of pleasurable indulgence long before any American salivated over a pint of green-dyed beer. For the devote Catholic Irish, the day was not only one on which they celebrated their favorite saint, but it also served as a Church sanctioned break to Lenten frugality. Feasting and drinking are as much of a time honored way of marking the day as is the wearing of the shamrock.

Wearing these green leaves was one of only two very small bits of green traditionally worn on this holiday in Ireland. The other was in handcrafted badges worn by children that were colored with red, blue and yellow as well as green. It was believed that if children wore any more green than this the faeries, who had apparently claimed the color as their own, would steal the young ones away. Kind of puts that whole pinching thing on its head, doesn’t it.

So why are we draping ourselves in head to toe green every March 17? I think that it is along the same lines as eating corned beef and cabbage – it is a way to feel Irish or, for those who had left a home in Eire, a way to remember it. This most Irish of dishes was not the traditional meal of the day. But on a day when Irish expats were trying to reconnect with days remembered what better way than with a common comfort food from home? In the same way, although blue is actually the official color of Ireland green is the sentimental unofficial color of the “Emerald Isle.”

I also think that the green comes from the American tendency to overdo. A number of St. Patrick’s Day traditions that are observed today actually seem to have originated in the US where more is always better. If Irish immigrants wore simple green shamrocks then how could it not please them if we join in the fun by wearing even more green, right?

Speaking of the shamrock there is one tradition O’Flaherty describes on her site that I particularly like. The Drowning of the Shamrock involved taking the sprig that one had worn all day and dropping it in the last drink of the night. The drink was then drained and the shamrock thrown over the left shoulder. What a great way to end a day of feasting and drinking!

4 Comments on "Countdown to St. Patrick’s Day – What’s With All the Damn Green?"

  1. Fred Smoot March 3, 2008 at 9:41 pm - Reply

    Congratulations to the author who bothered to research this information in the first place from The leprechaun lady…(im sure of it) Dear Bridget Nancy Margaret O’Flaherty. You made it wonderfully entertaing for a start of a grand holiday about to come soon…I’ll toast one and all of you. Thank you Best Regards…. Fred Smoot

  2. john p hill March 12, 2008 at 9:43 pm - Reply

    The green is worn in direct rejection of the kings authority as it was when the original IRA was exiled from Ireland, the now American Irish wear it as a symbol to the English crown. Sort of a thumbing of the nose. You know, as the song says, “all off to dublin in the green”.

  3. john p hill March 12, 2008 at 9:50 pm - Reply

    The green is worn in direct rejection of the kings authority as it was when the original IRA was exiled from Ireland, the now American Irish wear it as a symbol to the English crown. Sort of a thumbing of the nose. You know, as the song says, “all off to dublin in the green”. I hope this helps, even though the modern American Irish have no idea why they wear the green, they just do. The truth is the IRA was identified as wearing the green clothing, not to be confused with a uniform. Which as we all know, they have never had.

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