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Why are shamrocks a symbol of St Patrick's Day?

Happy St. Patrick's Day! I hope you're wearing green... maybe even a four leaf clover? Have you ever wondered why shamrocks are such a large part of St. Patrick's Day? Well, that's what we are learning about today!

Let's start with the man. St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, is one of Christianity’s most widely known figures. Though his holiday, St. Patrick's Day, which is held on the day of his death each year is known around the world, his life remains somewhat of a mystery.

St. Patrick, née Maewyn Succat, was born in Britain...not Ireland near the end of the fourth century to wealthy parents, having a connection to the church. At the age of 16, Patrick was taken prisoner by a group of Irish raiders who were attacking his family’s estate. They transported him to Ireland where he spent six years in captivity where he worked as a shepherd, outdoors and away from people. Lonely and afraid, he turned to his religion for solace, becoming a devout Christian.

After more than six years as a prisoner, Patrick escaped. According to his writing, a voice (which he believed to be God’s) spoke to him in a dream, telling him it was time to leave Ireland. Believing he had been called by God to Christianize Ireland, he joined the Catholic Church and studied for 15 years before being consecrated as the church’s second missionary to Ireland. Patrick began his mission to Ireland in 432.

After his ordination as a priest, he was sent to Ireland with a dual mission: to minister to Christians already living in Ireland and to begin to convert the Irish. Familiar with the Irish language and culture, Patrick chose to incorporate traditional ritual into his lessons of Christianity instead of attempting to eradicate native Irish beliefs. He used bonfires to celebrate Easter since the Irish were used to honoring their gods with fire. He also superimposed a sun, a powerful Irish symbol, onto the Christian cross to create what is now called a Celtic cross. Legend says Patrick used the shamrock, a symbol of to explain the Holy Trinity. By his death (believed to be March 17, 461), the island was almost entirely Christian.

The holiday, which began centuries ago as the feast day of St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland (though never officially canonized by the Catholic Church due to the era, Patrick was likely proclaimed a saint by popular acclaim), has become a day in which everyone gets to be Irish. The Irish botanist and cleric Caleb Threlkeld wrote a treatise on Ireland’s native plants in 1726 that explained the shamrock as the country’s national symbol, and asserted its significance in the context of St. Patrick’s Day. Threlkeld wrote: “This Plant is worn by the People in their Hats upon the 17. Day of March yearly, (which is called St. Patrick’s Day.)” Continuing to explain why the plant was relevant that day, specifically, Threlkeld said, “It being a Current Tradition, that by this Three Leafed Grass, he emblematically set forth to them the Mystery of the Holy Trinity.” (The writer then goes on to remark on the “debauchery” and “excess in liquor” that was partaken in on that sacred day.)

To be honest, I'm more of a fan of the four-leaf clover... but then again, I'd say St. Patrick's Day has lost it's religious meaning and is celebrated as a holiday for the Irish (or those wanting to be Irish for the day). What about you? What's your favorite St. Patrick's Day Tradition?

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