St. Patrick's Day: Of Saints and Leprechauns

St. Patrick's Day generally seems to be an excuse to wear green while downing some Irish beer and munching clover-shaped cookies. Originating in Ireland, this holiday is celebrated anywhere that has people with Irish background.; The Irish themselves traditionally attend Mass before getting to the serious celebrating at pubs. Also, in Ireland businesses are closed on March 17, except for pubs and restaurants of course

The US skips attending church and celebrates the holiday in other ways. Americans generally include crafting for kids, parades, and Irish food, music and beer. However, there's more to this Irish holiday than eating shamrock-shaped cookies, going to the bar and watching corny Little People movies. The question arises, where exactly did this Irish holiday come from? Who is St. Patrick and do Leprechauns really look like that character from that 'magically delicious', Lucky Charms cereal?

For a deeper understanding of St Patty's, here's an abbreviated history of St. Patrick. He was the patron Saint of Ireland, born in Wales at about AD 385. His given name was Maewyn, and he considered himself a pagan until he was sixteen. At that tender age he was sold into slavery by a group of Irish marauders that raided his village. During captivity he suffered greatly and through that became closer to God. Escaping after six years of imprisonment he went to Gaul where he studied for 12 years in a monastery under St. Germain, bishop of Auxerre. Over this time he discovered that his calling was to convert pagans to Christianity, as he was a pagan once himself.

After two years he was appointed the second bishop to Ireland. Becoming quite successful at converting pagans, he made enemies out of the Celtic Druids. The Druids actually arrested him several times, but Patrick managed to escape each time. He traveled through Ireland establishing monasteries as well as schools and churches, which would aid his mission to convert all of Ireland. This lasted 30 years before he retired to County Down. St. Patrick died on March 17, AD 461, hence the date of our wonderful festive holiday. St Patrick is also behind the shamrock. He chose this plant as a symbol of the church's Holy Trinity, as it has three leaflets bound by one stalk. For more information on this 'apostle' of Ireland, check out his spiritual autobiography, 'Confessio.'

Let's go from the historical, Christian aspect of St. Patty's to a more mythological background. For a base understanding, the word Leprechaun is derived from the Gaelic, 'luachara'n' which means 'pygmy'; or from the Gaelic, 'leathbhrogan' which means, 'maker of one shoe'. From this we can gather that Leprechauns are little people, like pygmies, and fairy cobblers who have the odd craft of making only one shoe. Brightly decked in old-fashioned clothes, they often wear green with a red cap, leather apron and buckled shoes. These little elves can be found living in farmhouses or wine cellars. Sometimes they take human furniture and supplies that they exchange with their own good luck charms.

This mischievous fairy-like creature is probably not the spitting image of the Lucky Charm's cereal character, saying, 'They're always after me 'lucky charms'!' Yet, the cartoon character is based on certain popular beliefs. These small sprites, about three feet high, are indeed chased by humans. People go after them because it's rumored each one has a treasure, perhaps a pot of gold. This treasure can supposedly be obtained by capturing one. However, getting a hold of these little blighters is tricky. Take your eyes off them for one second, and they will vanish in mid-air! A slight variation to this myth is that they are self-appointed guardians of ancient treasure, which they bury in crock-pots. Hence we have the cauldrons that are commonly seen holding gold at the end of the rainbow.

There is some speculation on whether Leprechauns are the same as Cluricauns. Some say the two kinds are cousins, and others say Cluricauns are simply drunken Leprechauns. For our sake, we will go with the second belief. This is that they are the same creature, just with different names for different behaviors. Having said that, Leprechauns are often found in an intoxicated state, turning them into Cluricauns. They can be seen riding in a drunken state in the moonlight on the back of a dog or sheep! Clearly, Ireland's 'national fairy' is an appropriate role model for our tradition of drinking on St. Patty's.

St Patrick's Day has an interesting background that combines mystical, even pagan-like, myths with a Saint who was once a pagan. In older days, and in Ireland, it was tradition to focus on spiritual renewal and say prayers for international missionaries. Today the Irish keep at least part of the religious aspect by going to Mass and mix in the Leprechaun style partying at night. Most countries, like the US, keep up the less serious traditions of eating, drinking and crafting. This St. Patrick's Day, say a toast to both St. Patrick and the Leprechauns during your night of revelry. Also, be aware of strange 'charms' in place of, say, your night table or kitchen toaster!

author: Charlotte Keesey

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