Once, Green Wasn't Lucky...

Des Moines Sunday Register
March 13, 1983


     AMHERST, MASS.- The wearing of the green always has been an important
part of St. Patrick's Day in the United States. But for many hundreds in
Ireland, green was an "ambivalent" color that people avoided wearing.
     "Green was considered an unlucky color, a color associated with
fairies," said Maria Tymoczko, a specialist in Irish literature and folklore
at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
     "This goes back a thousand years in Irish literature. We find that
green is associated with the other world, so it would have been dangerous to
wear too much green. It might be an invitation to the fairies to take you to
the fairy mounds. So, people in Ireland in former days would never have worn
green in the way we do. That's why the emblems of St. Patrick's Day were
only a little green rosette or a tiny piece of green silk or ribbon," she
     The Irish did not consider the fairies to be evil exactly, Tymoczko
said, but "as with most supernatural things, fairies are dangerous. One
doesn't trifle with the fairies or invite them into one's life."
     Our present "rampant use of green" to celebrate St. Patrick's Day is
probably a result of a tradition of fairy lore that is more "muted", she
     "Some people say the fairies never came to America. Other people would
take issue with that. But certainly the fairy presence is not so keenly felt
     Customs concerning the wearing of the green are not the only rituals of
St. Patrick's Day that have changed since the earliest days of Irish
history, she said. Ireland was a rural culture and, because St. Patrick's
Day falls on or near the vernal equinox, it was a sort of agricultural
holiday celebrating the return of light, of spring, and of the planting
     "St. Patrick's Day is celebrated at one of the major turning points of
the solar year.," Tymoczko said. "That is kind of an irony of history,
because St. Patrick inveighed against worshipping the sun and yet his day is
set at one of the days for solar worship."
     Since the earliest Christian times in Ireland, the feast day of its
patron saint has been celebrated with feasting and family celebrations. The
pleasures of the day were perhaps more keenly felt in the past in Ireland
than they were in the United States because St. Patrick's Day falls during
Lent, once a period of severe dietary restrictions.
     "It was one of the few days when people could eat meat, and have a
little something special to eat and drink," she said.
     Some of these national customs were lost in a wave of Irish nationalism
that arose about 200 years ago, she said. Irish nationalists strove to make
the feast day a more dignified occasion of Irish solidarity or home rule.
Green became the color of nationalism.
     Why didn't the old Irish customs survive in the United States? Because
they did not survive the change in culture, from rural Ireland to the urban
United States, Tymoczko said. New meanings for the day developed in the new
     "The reason that everybody is a little bit Irish on St. Patrick's Day
is because it has become a celebration of ethnicity," she said. "We enjoy
remembering the ethnic dimensions to life. Also, all of us do celebrate the
coming of the light- St. Patrick's Day is still the holiday closest to the
vernal equinox- so that will be a reason to celebrate the day as long as the
sun is still shining."



Return to Iowa Irish

Comments, Suggestions, Contributions, Criticism or Praise?

2001 Cathy Joynt Labath