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?
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.
Maybe you’re planning to go to a Halloween party soon, or you’re looking forward to trick-or-treating. Your preparations for Halloween will be different than those of the Celts in Ireland 2,000 years ago, but their festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in), was the first celebration of the holiday. Samhain represented the Celtic new year—the time when summer ended and winter began. The word Samhain means the end of summer. During this period, the ghosts of the dead returned to visit the living. In order to prevent the dead from causing havoc and perhaps destroying crops, the Celts wore animal costumes and masks. The Celts also left out gifts of food for the spirits and burnt crops and animals to appease the Celtic gods.
When the Romans conquered Celtic territory, a blend of Celtic and Roman traditions for honoring the dead occurred. In 1000 A.D., the Catholic church made November 2 All Souls’ Day, celebrated much like Samhain with bonfires and people dressed in costumes as saints, angels, and devils. November 1 (All Saints’ Day) was set aside to honor only saints and martyrs, but the evening before it, when the Celts had celebrated Samhain, was called All-hallows Eve. Thus the original date the Celts celebrated Samhain became our present day Halloween.
Children did not come to the doors of people’s homes shouting trick-or-treat during these early Halloween celebrations, however. One possible precedent for trick-or-treating started in medieval Europe on All Souls’ Day. An English version depicted beggars and children asking people for soul cakes, which when eaten would help a lost soul get to heaven. Halloween reached the U.S. thanks to Irish immigrants who came to the country in the nineteenth-century, but the focus of the day was more on parties and pranks than candy. Tricks played by children included covering windows with soap, removing gates, and tying doors shut. Adults in small towns who usually knew the neighborhood kids went along with the story that the tricks were performed by goblins and witches.
As American towns grew into cities where people no longer knew one another, adults got tired of the pranks. Communities started holding costume parties to get control over what the kids did on Halloween. By the 1930s, homeowners offered treats to children on Halloween if they promised not to play any tricks. Today kids attend parties and yell “trick or treat” at the doors of neighbors, though many don’t know how these traditions got started. So if you want to play a harmless trick on your friends this Halloween, see if they can guess the history behind Halloween.