12 St. Patrick’s Day Traditions That Will Bring You Luck
Discover authentic Irish traditions you didn't know about, and learn the surprising history of others that actually originated in America
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The luck of the Irish
Originally a religious feast honoring the patron saint of Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day has turned into a day to celebrate all things Irish. Some of the customs we associate with it are actually Irish American traditions, but we can still hope a little luck of the Irish rubs off on us when we partake in them.
When we think of St. Patrick’s Day traditions, we think of pints of Guinness, leprechauns with pots of gold, bagpipers and four-leaf clovers. How did these traditions begin, and will they really bring you good luck? (Not to mention, when is St. Patrick’s Day, and do you abbreviate it to St. Paddy or St. Patty? And what’s up with green as the St. Patrick’s Day color?)
Read on to find out more about the traditions that bring you luck for the holiday!
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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 four-leaf clovers are so rare, finding one makes anyone feel lucky, and the best of all St. Patrick’s Day traditions may be 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.
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Wearing o’ the green
One of the lucky St. Patrick’s Day traditions in Ireland is 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,” says Kinealy. 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 do 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. Make sure you’re protected by wearing a green St. Patrick’s Day shirt! Or, if a pinch seems a little painful even in jest, try a few fun St. Patricks Day jokes instead.
Kissing someone who’s 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 it refers to kissing the Blarney Stone in Ireland—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 [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.
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Attending a St. Patrick’s Day parade
Seeing bagpipers marching past a crowd wearing green and waving mini Irish flags seems like one of the most quintessential St. Patrick’s Day traditions for those lucky enough to experience it. However, 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 U.S. 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. Whether or not you have Irish heritage, these St. Patrick’s Day memes will make you laugh.
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“Letting the devil out” of Irish soda bread
Many variations of so-called “Irish soda bread” are eaten in America 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 and because it could be cooked in a cast-iron pot over a flame instead of in an oven, which most people didn’t have. But for the bread to be lucky, you have to cut a cross on the top “to let the devil out” (as well as to release steam during cooking), a superstition held by both the Irish and Irish Americans, 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.” Try an Irish soda bread baking mix to whip up a loaf of your own, and don’t forget to check out these other St. Patrick’s Day recipes!
Not eating green food
Dying food (or beer, 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. (For example, it’s a beloved tradition in the Windy City to dye the Chicago River green!) But green food dye isn’t one of the St. Patrick’s Day traditions in Ireland, because 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 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 Guinness instead.
“Drowning the shamrock”
One of the most famous good luck charms from around the world is the shamrock. Legend has it that the good luck of this 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 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 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, 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.
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 more about 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.
- Christine Kinealy, PhD, director of Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute and professor of history at Quinnipiac University
- Scientific American: “How Science Can Help You Find a 4-Leaf Clover”
- NPR: “The Dark History of Eating Green on St. Patrick’s Day”
- Scientific American: “Should We Be Wearing Blue on St. Patrick’s Day?”