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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Luck of the Irish

Leprechauns, shamrocks and emeralds, oh my!

Published: March 18, 2011
Section: Features

Hamentaschen, pastries eaten during Purim, are decorated for St. Patrick’s Day.<br /><i>Photo courtesy of Barbara Kane</i>Like most holidays in the United States, advertisers capitalize on St. Patrick’s Day. A flood of sale e-mails include subjects like “St. Patty’s Day is all about the green—How ’bout we save you some?” and “Save 20% on a Shamrock Sampler!” But what is the significance of St. Patrick’s Day, and how and why do Americans and Brandeisians celebrate it?

Celebrated internationally on March 17 on the anniversary of his death, St. Patrick’s Day commemorates a patron saint of Ireland who is credited with the arrival of Christianity in Ireland. Although it is traditionally a religious feast day marked by church services and fewer Lenten restrictions, it has recently become a more secular holiday marked by green clothing and excessive celebrations. According to Father Walter Cuenin, Brandeis’ Catholic chaplain, St. Patrick’s Day is still a religious holiday in Ireland and many people celebrate mass.
In America today, “a lot of the religious significance is lost,” Cuenin said. It is an excuse to celebrate and wear a lot of green—but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. “Even if one is not Irish, [St. Patrick’s Day] is a day when everyone is Irish, which is a way of acknowledging the influence of the Irish in our country,” he said. However, before partaking in celebrations next year, take a minute to learn about the history of St. Patrick, what he did for Ireland and the symbols associated with the holiday.

St. Patrick

St. Patrick was born in Scotland in 387 AD. As a teenager, he was captured by Irish raiders and taken with them to be a slave and shepherd in Ireland. While tending sheep, he became more religious, and his love and fear of God grew. After returning to England and reuniting with his family, he dreamt that the Irish were calling to him, their “holy youth,” to come back. He was ordained as a priest and then a bishop, and he returned to Ireland to preach the Gospel. With his followers, he was able to convert thousands and build churches throughout Ireland. Now, along with Brigid of Kildare and Colmcille, he is a patron saint of Ireland.


Some scholars say that Irish fairies were considered gods by the pagans before the arrival of St. Patrick but as Christianity and Catholicism took hold, the fairies shrank in importance. One type of fairy, the leprechaun, was usually depicted as a small, mischievous man dressed in red or green. According to Irish legend, leprechauns are shoemakers and hide their money in pots of gold at the end of rainbows. There is no clear link between St. Patrick and leprechauns, but as St. Patrick’s Day spread to the rest of the world, symbols of Ireland, including the leprechaun, became associated with the holiday.


St. Patrick supposedly used shamrocks, or three leaf clovers, to explain the concept of the Holy Trinity to the pagan Irish. Each of the three leaves represented the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The three leaves have also been associated with hope, faith and love—on a four leaf clover, the fourth leaf symbolizes luck. One story explains that when St. Patrick chased the snakes out of Ireland, he was standing in a patch of shamrock. The phrase “the wearing of the green” means to wear a shamrock on one’s clothing. A shamrock also represents Ireland on the coat of arms of Great Britain, along with the English rose and Scottish thistle.


Although blue was the color originally associated with St. Patrick, the color green means many things in terms of the holiday and Irish culture. It is the color of spring, one of the colors on the Irish flag, and part of Ireland’s nickname, the “Emerald Isle.” Green is also the color of shamrocks, which have an important role in St. Patrick’s conversion of the Irish people. However, like leprechauns, other than its association with Ireland, green has a mostly arbitrary relationship with St. Patrick’s Day. Many people celebrate St. Patrick’s Day by wearing green­—but watch out for orange, also on the flag, which is seen as a protest against the Catholic Church.

In Boston and at Brandeis

St. Patrick is the patron saint of the archdiocese of Boston, and a special Mass, celebrated at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston, was attended by the Cardinal and the Consul General of Ireland, Cuenin said. At Brandeis, the majority of students wearing green were just doing it for fun.
However, for some students, the holiday has a deeper meaning. “I celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, but I’m Irish Catholic so it’s not particularly secular for me,” Jackie Zais ’13 said. “For a really long time I just wore green because everyone did. It wasn’t ’til I was older that I realized the religious significance of the day.”