With St. Patrick’s Day quickly approaching, it’s the perfect time to learn about the St. Patrick’s Day symbols. Each symbol has it’s own history and meaning; so let’s dive in!
On March 17th every year, as spring begins, to you’re bound to see people celebrating St. Patrick’s Day dressed in all green. Have you ever wondered why the color is practically synonymous with the holiday?
Maybe you’ve gone out and seen shamrocks proudly displayed, or noticed corned beef and cabbage on restaurant menus in March.
Below you’ll find out what each St. Patrick’s Day symbol is, the meaning behind it, and why it’s associated with this spring holiday.
What are the St. Patrick’s Day symbols?
Did you know St. Patrick’s Day is actually a religious holiday? This Christian feast day honors St. Patrick, a patron saint, and apostle of Ireland. The day falls annually on March 17.
There are seven symbols that hold special meaning on this day. The St. Patrick’s Day symbols are shamrocks, the color green, leprechauns, parades, corned beef and cabbage, and green beer and the harp.
While some of these symbols tie to St. Patrick directly, most correlate more with celebrating Irish culture and showing Irish pride in general.
Some of the St. Patrick’s Day symbols came directly from Irish history in Ireland, and some began in the United States. The symbols that started in the United States were influenced by the Irish-American immigrant experience.
St. Patrick’s Day is not the only holiday that has a set of symbols that have special meaning on the holiday.
Shamrocks are one of the most recognizable St. Patrick’s Day symbols. Let’s go over the shamrock meaning and history to learn why this flowering plant is so important to St. Patricks Day.
The word shamrock comes from the Irish word seamróg, which translates to mean “young clover”. Seamróg is a combination of two Irish words: seamair (which translates to clover) and óg (which translates to mean young).
The shamrock is the national plant of the entirety of Ireland (including both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland). Shamrocks are used to represent Ireland in the same way that the Tudor rose is used to represent England.
When you think of shamrocks in connection to St. Patrick’s Day symbols, you might be imagining a four leaf clover. While this lucky plant is often mistaken for a shamrock, it’s not technically considered one.
All shamrocks are members of the clover family, but not all clovers are shamrocks. Shamrocks only have three leaves, while clovers can have any number of leaves.
Shamrocks became a symbol of Irish Nationalism during the Irish Rebellion of 1798. Irish Nationalists opposed British rule and the British suppression of Irish language and culture.
Nationalists thought Ireland should be its own sovereign entity. Irish nationalists wore green uniforms, and their supporters donned green ribbons and shamrocks on their lapels to show their Irish pride and loyalty.
St. Patrick’s Day shamrock meaning
Shamrocks are not only a symbol of Ireland, but also a symbol of Saint Patrick and the holiday of St. Patrick’s Day. Saint Patrick came to Ireland in the fifth century as a Christian missionary to evangelize the Irish.
He used the shamrock as a tool to teach Christianity. He made the shamrock a metaphor for the religion, saying that the three leaves of shamrocks represented the holy trinity: the father, son and holy sprit.
The holy trinity also appears in a symbol of Easter. There are several Easter breads from around the world which have a three strand braided dough to represent the holy trinity.
The ancient Celtic people of Ireland had long attributed significance to the number three. It was regarded as the “perfect number’. Celtic people worshipped many triple deities, which are gods or goddesses that appear in three forms.
In addition to St. Patrick’s shamrock representing the holy trinity, the three leaves of shamrocks also have other meanings. The three leaves of shamrocks represent faith, hope and love. The rare fourth leaf (on four leaf clovers) represents good luck.
St. Patrick’s Day isn’t the only holiday that has a plant with religious holiday meaning. Palm branches, the dogwood tree, and Easter lilies all have religious symbolism that tie in to the Easter holiday.
St. Patrick’s Day green
The most celebrated of the St. Patrick’s Day symbols is the color green. You can find it everywhere you look on St. Patrick’s Day, and those not wearing it are in danger of being pinched!
The color green is hugely important to Ireland, but surprisingly, green isn’t the color that was originally associated with Saint Patrick. The first color associated with Saint Patrick was blue, specifically a shade called Saint Patrick’s blue.
However, blue was also a color associated with the British, from whom the Irish nationalists were trying to distance themselves.
Over time, Saint Patrick’s association with blue faded, and green became the color symbolizing this patron saint. Saint Patrick’s association to the color green was also due to his use of shamrocks to spread Christianity to Ireland.
The color green in Ireland symbolizes so much more than just Saint Patrick. It represents his namesake holiday, the entire country of Ireland, and pride in Irish culture and heritage too!
You may have heard Ireland called the Emerald Isle. This is because of the lush, green landscape found all over Ireland. The flag of Ireland also features the color green.
Each color in the flag of Ireland holds symbolism. The green on the flag represents the Irish Catholics, the orange represents the Irish Protestants, and the white represents hope for peace and unity between the two.
Wearing green on St. Patrick’s Day
With all of these reasons green is important to Ireland, it’s no surprise that the color green is so prevalent on St. Patrick’s Day.
It can be found in St. Patrick’s Day themed decor and recipes, pints of beer, and even throughout the Chicago River, which as been dyed green since 1962.
The color green was worn historically as a sign of Irish nationalism. In modern times, during St. Patrick’s day, green is worn as a symbol of Irish pride and loyalty.
Wearing specific colors to celebrate holidays is not just a tradition of St. Patrick’s Day. Each holiday has their own set of colors with meanings specific to the holiday. Check our our guides to Valentine’s Day colors and the colors of Mardi Gras to learn more!
Green has become synonymous with Irish culture, and wearing green on Saint Patrick’s Day honors the Irish. It’s customary to wear green on Saint Patrick’s Day, or risk being pinched.
There are two reasons why a person can be pinched on St. Patrick’s Day for not wearing green. A pinch for not wearing green on Saint Patrick’s Day can serve as a subtle reminder to show more Irish pride.
There is also mythology that says if a person wears green, they become invisible to leprechauns. Lore says the leprechauns like to pinch anyone they can see, so wearing green is a good way to avoid being pinched!
St. Patrick’s Day leprechaun history
Leprechauns are one of the St. Patrick’s Day symbols that date back to Irish folklore and Celtic belief in faeries. Let’s go over some leprechaun history to find out how we arrived at the modern depiction of St. Patrick’s Day leprechauns.
In Irish folklore, leprechauns were described as solitary, small, mischievous, cranky faeries with magical powers. They were known for being cobblers of the fairy world, which makes sense because their name is derived from the Irish term leath bhrogan meaning shoemaker.
They were paid for their cobbling in gold, and are thought to have amassed a treasured pot of gold that is hidden at the end of the rainbow. It is said they can be found by following the “tap, tap, tap” sound of their hammers.
Legend says if you are able to catch a leprechaun, they will grant you three wishes for their release. However, you should make your wishes with caution. Leprechauns are tricksters, and known for elaborate pranks and escapes.
Throughout history, the leprechaun’s profession, height and disposition has stayed consistent, but their outfits have changed slightly. While we think of leprechauns today as wearing green, there are early references to them wearing red.
In Samuel Lover’s book Legends and Stories of Ireland, published in 1827, he described them as wearing “a red square cut coat, richly laced with gold, waistcoat and inexpressibles of the same cocked hat, shoes, and buckles” (228-229).
Modern day leprechauns are depicted as wearing green coats, top hats, and shoes with buckles. They have their own national day on May 13 called National Leprechaun Day, but are more widely celebrated on St. Patrick’s Day.
Want to incorporate leprechauns into your holiday festivities this year? Try making one of the leprechaun crafts below to celebrate this symbol of St. Patrick’s Day!
- St. Patrick’s Day door wreath – (pictured above) Want to add a touch of festivity and fun to your front door? Check out this DIY door swag tutorial.
- Leprechaun hat centerpiece – Do you love plants and St. Patrick’s Day? If so, this craft is perfect for you.
If you’re looking for a leprechaun desert recipe, make sure to check out these leprechaun hat s’mores cookies. They’re cute and delicious!
History of the first St. Patrick’s Day parade
St. Patricks Day parades are one of the most interactive of the St. Patrick’s Day symbols. You might be surprised to learn the first St. Patrick’s Day parade did not occur in Ireland, Boston, or New York.
Ireland held its first St. Patrick’s Day parade in Waterford, but that wasn’t until 1903, when St. Patrick’s Day became a national holiday in Ireland.
Until recently it was believed that the first American celebration of St. Patrick’s Day was in Boston (1737), and the first St. Patrick’s Day parade was in New York City (1762). However, in 2017, new information came to light.
Documentation was discovered in Seville at the Archivo General de Indias, that proves the first St. Patrick’s Day parade occurred in 1601, in what is now called St. Augustine, Florida.
In the 1600s, the area was under Spanish colonial rule. San Patricio (Saint Patrick) was known there as the saint that protected the city’s maize fields.
On San Patricio’s feast day, March 17 1601, artillery was fired in celebration and residents processed down the city’s streets in his honor.
Irishman Ricard Arthur is the most likely the reason for the first St. Patrick’s Day parade. He spent time as St. Augustine’s parish priest (known as Padre Ricardo Artur); before and after his time spent in St. Augustine, there was no evidence of parading for Saint Patrick.
St. Patrick’s Day is not the only holiday celebrated with parades. Parades are an integral part of celebrating Mardi Gras, and are also featured in our modern day Fourth of July and Thanksgiving celebrations.
Irish corned beef and cabbage history
Corned beef and cabbage is often associated with St. Patrick’s Day, and has become a symbol of the holiday. However, corned beef and cabbage is not a traditionally Irish dish.
When Irish immigrants fled The Great Famine and came to the United States they settled in several states; with the majority going to Massachusetts and New York.
When Irish immigrants arrived in New York, they found bacon to be very expensive. To cut down their food costs, they began buying corned beef from Kosher butchers and used it in place of pork.
This gave rise to the popularity of corned beef and cabbage. There’s even a National Corned Beef and Cabbage Day which, fittingly, falls on March 17th.
Corned beef and cabbage is the Irish-American adaptation of the traditional Irish dish, bacon and cabbage. In the United States, it is customary to eat corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day, but it isn’t traditional in Ireland.
Do the Irish drink green beer on St. Patrick’s Day?
Similar to corned beef and cabbage, drinking green beer is not a traditional Irish custom. Green beer has become a St. Patrick’s Day symbol, but was first created in New York in 1914.
It didn’t make its way to Ireland until 1985.
In fact, the entire concept of drinking beer in pubs to celebrate St. Paddy’s Day wasn’t legally allowed in Ireland until the 1970s. Before then, bars in Ireland were ordered to remain closed on St. Patrick’s Day to observe the religious holiday.
So how did green beer become one of the St. Patrick’s Day symbols?
In 1914, a coroner’s assistant named Dr. Thomas Hayes Curtin introduced green beer to a group of people attending a St. Patrick’s Day dinner party, at the Schnerer Club, in New York.
He turned the beer green by adding a drop of a laundry detergent called Wash Blue. This toxic laundry detergent was supposedly added in a quantity low enough to not cause any illness.
Thankfully, the green beer served today is made using non-toxic green food dye. So if you’re out celebrating you can order a green beer from your local bartender without fear!
However, if you’re searching for a more traditional Irish drink, stick with a pint of Guinness. An estimated 13 million pints of Guinness are consumed yearly on St. Patrick’s Day.
If you’re drinking, make sure you enjoy this Dublin based stout responsibly!
St. Patrick’s Day cocktails
If you’d like to try something other than green beer for St. Patty’s Day, check out this list of our favorite St. Patrick’s Day cocktail recipes:
- Irish coffee – Enjoy your hot Irish beverage while reading our article about the history of Irish coffee.
- Homemade Baileys – Did you know Baileys is made exclusively in Ireland? We’ve found a copycat recipe of Baileys that you can make at home!
- Mudslide cocktail – (pictured above) This vodka based St. Paddy’s Day drink is so delicious that you’ll be going back for seconds!
- Baileys After 8 cocktail – Boozy hot chocolate anyone? This recipe even features includes mini marshmallows, yum!
- International Incident Martini – This multi-spirit martini featuring Baileys is perfect for St. Patrick’s Day.
Most of the St. Patrick’s Day recipes above contain Baileys Irish cream. If you like the liqueur as much as we do, make sure to check out our recipes for St. Patrick’s Day truffles, decadent mudslide truffles and Irish cream fudge, all made with Baileys!
What is the traditional symbol of Ireland?
The last of the St. Patrick’s Day symbols we’re going to go over is the harp. In addition to being a symbol of St. Patrick’s Day, the harp is also a symbol of Ireland.
As St. Patrick’s Day is a celebration of the Irish, it makes sense that their national symbol would also be a St. Patrick’s Day symbol.
The harp is modeled after the Brian Boru harp, which is on display in Trinity college. It can be found on Irish passports, government documents, Irish euro coins, the coat of arms of Ireland and more.
It became the trademarked as the symbol of Guinness in 1876. Though Ireland has been documented using the harp in antiquity, Guinness trademarked the harp before Ireland did!
In order for the Irish Free State to use the harp as the national symbol of Ireland in 1922, they had to flip the image so the harp was facing in the other direction.
The harp used to represent Guinness is shown with its soundboard on the left, while the harp representing Ireland (on euros, documents, and the coat of arms) has its soundboard on the right (pictured above).
This St. Patrick’s Day, you’re likely to see images of the harp. Take a look at the direction it’s facing to see which harp you’re seeing!
How to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day symbols
Looking for some fun ways to celebrate the St. Patrick’s Day symbols you’ve been learning about? Check out the ways below.
There’s one for each of the St. Patrick’s Day symbols. Some may surprise you!
Some of the links below are affiliate links. I earn a small commission, at no extra cost to you if you purchase through an affiliate link.
- Teach your kids about the importance of shamrocks on St. Patrick’s Day while making Shamrock pretzels. They’ll love the snack, and hearing about this St. Patrick’s Day symbol.
- Watch a St. Patrick’s Day parade this year. While some of the biggest parades happen in New York, Boston, Chicago and Dublin, you can still find parades in other cities. Check locally to see if you can find one near you!
- Teach your kids about the legend of leprechauns by reading them a leprechaun story.
- Look for some St. Patrick’s day words in our March printable word search puzzle.
- If you’ve been looking for a new musical hobby or skill take the opportunity on St. Patrick’s Day to learn to play the harp, or at least begin learning to play!
- Decorate with green this year to celebrate Ireland! You could hang a St. Patrick’s Day banner or print out an old Irish blessing to have around your home.
- Make an Irish recipe today. You could even try making bacon and cabbage. If feel like going out for a meal, there’s plenty of places serving corned beef and cabbage today!
- Make your own green beer. All you need is a little green food coloring and a beer of your choice. Beers that are lighter in color work better for this. You’d be able to see the color in a pilsner better than you would in a stout, for example.
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If you enjoyed learning about the St. Patrick’s Day symbols, be sure to also check out these posts to learn more fun facts about some of your favorite things!
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- Cranberry facts – If Thanksgiving if your favorite holiday, check out these facts about cranberries, one of the symbols of Thanksgiving. Make sure to grab our fresh cranberry relish recipe too!
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About the author
Since graduating from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Jess has been living and working in Los Angeles, CA. She is a freelance writer, specializing in content related to fashion, food and drink and film industry topics. Find out more about Jess here.
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