The Shamrock: A Symbol of St. Patrick’s Day

Next month on March 17, many people in Ireland and the U.S. will observe St. Patrick’s Day. You’ll probably see people wearing hats, shirts, and pins with shamrocks on them. But do you know how the shamrock became a symbol of St. Patrick’s Day?

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According to legend, Saint Patrick, after whom the holiday named, used shamrocks as a symbol of Christianity. St. Patrick converted many Irish people to the Christian religion around 432 A.D. Depending on what legend you believe, St. Patrick may have used the shamrock’s three leaves to explain the concept of the Trinity to the Irish. He pointed out that although
the shamrock has three leaves, it is still one plant. Similarly, the Christian god is made up of three persons (The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost).

Whether or not the story is true, shamrocks resemble the Christian cross, especially when drawn in the Celtic style. The similarity to a cross and the sign of spring remain two reasons why the shamrock is still worn today.

In ancient Ireland, the shamrock was a sacred symbol. The three leaves on the shamrock made it really special because people at the time believed that three was a magic number. Good things supposedly happened in threes. If one good thing happened, a person could expect two more. Historians discovered that the Celts also used the shamrock to help them grow crops. The shamrock’s three leaves represented three goddesses. By burning the leaves and spreading the ashes over their fields, farmers expected to grow many crops. In addition to the number of leaves on the shamrock, it also served as a sign of the coming spring.

In the nineteenth century, the Irish used the shamrock as a symbol of rebellion against English rule. Wearing a shamrock during this period was a serious statement of Irish national pride and was punishable by hanging.

The Irish also developed the custom of “drowning the shamrock.” Families with servants put shamrocks in a bowl and covered them with Irish whiskey. When the family finished drinking, the remainder of the whiskey was given to the servants. Despite the custom of drowning the shamrock, St. Patrick’s Day is not dedicated primarily to drinking in Ireland. Instead, people spend the day visiting family and attending church services.

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