St. Patrick's Day: Tradition, revelry

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A celebration the world over

The legends & myths behind four-leaf clovers, drinking Guinness, raising the dead and banishing snakes. See gallery

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Wearing green

In the United States, it's customary to wear green on St. Patrick's Day. According to Irish folklore, however, in Ireland green was deemed unlucky for a long period because it is the favorite color of the Good People (the proper name for fairies). The Good People, so the story goes, are likely to steal people – especially children – who wear too much green. Today in Ireland, only Catholics wear green; Protestants, often called "Orangemen," wear orange.

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Drinking beer

Drinking on St. Patrick's Day got so out of hand in Ireland at one point that all bars were ordered closed on March 17, but that was repealed in the 1970s. Today, some revelers raise a pint of stout and wish their companions, "Slainté!" – the Irish word, pronounced SLAN-cha, for "health." Guinness beer, as it turns out, may be good for your health. At a conference of the American Heart Association in 2003, researchers from the University of Wisconsin reported that the frothy stout may be as effective as daily aspirin in reducing blood clots that cause heart attacks.

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Four-leaf clover

Many feel that finding a four-leaf clover will bring good fortune, not just on St. Patrick's Day. Each leaf carries its own charm: faith, hope, love, luck. The Druids believed that a four-leaf clover could help spot witches and other demons. The flower is so rare that one estimate suggests there are about 10,000 three-leaf clovers for every four-leaf clover. Fun fact: According to Guinness World Records, the highest number of leaves found on a clover was 21.

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St. Patrick's Day parades

In 1762, colonial New York City hosted the first official St. Patrick's Day parade in which Irish immigrants in the British colonial army marched down city streets. After years of fighting stereotypes and racial prejudice, Irish Americans used St. Patrick's Day parades to show that they had become a political force. Today, despite the fact that St. Patrick's Day isn't an official holiday in the U.S., nearly 3 million spectators line the streets of New York City for the five-hour spectacle. The first St. Patrick's Day parade in Ireland was in 1931 in Dublin.

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One traditional icon of the day is the shamrock. People wear a sprig of shamrock on their clothing, which the Irish call "wearing of the green." The belief is that St. Patrick used the three-leafed shamrock to explain the Holy Trinity (the Father, Son and Holy Ghost).

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Kissing the Blarney stone

For more than 200 years, people have traveled to Cork, Ireland, to kiss the Blarney stone, which is believed to give the power of persuasive speech. But it's no easy task. Intrepid travelers must climb 120 narrow steps to the top of Blarney Castle, and with the help of an assistant, dangle upside down and backward in order to reach the stone with their lips.   

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Corned beef and cabbage

A "traditional" meal of corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick's Day actually is a fairly new custom. At the turn of the 20th century, Irish immigrants living in New York City substituted corned beef – borrowed from their Jewish neighbors – for their traditional dish of Irish bacon to save money.

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Leprechauns actually don't have anything to do with St. Patrick's Day. But over the years, and especially after Walt Disney released "Darby O'Gill & the Little People" in 1959, the leprechaun  evolved into a recognizable symbol of St. Patrick's Day, especially in the United States. The name "lephrechaun" has several origins: The original Irish name for the cantankerous-turned-lovable fellow is "lobaircin," meaning "small-bodied fellow." There also is the Irish Gaelic word "leipreachan," which means "a kind of aqueous sprite"; or it could be from "leath bhrogan," meaning "shoemaker."

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Celtic cross

The Celtic cross is a cross-community symbol of St. Patrick's Day, and Christianity, in general. Legend has it that St. Patrick introduced the Celtic cross to the Irish Pagan people during their conversion to Christianity. It also has been claimed that he combined the Celtic cross with the sun cross, which represents the life-giving properties of the sun.

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Growth of St. Patrick's Day celebrations, traditions

The first public St. Patrick's Day celebration in America was in 1737 in Boston. In 1962, in an effort to clean up the Chicago River, city pollution-control workers dumped 100 pounds of green dye into the water. The practice soon became a St. Paddy's Day tradition. Because of environmental concerns, only 40 pounds of the stuff is used today. Some natives of Savannah, Ga., claim their city came up with the green-river idea. St. Patrick's Day is celebrated all over the world today, including Japan, Singapore and Russia.

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St. Patrick raised people from dead?

It has been written that St. Patrick resurrected as many as 39 people. In one 12th century writing, "The Life and Acts of St. Patrick" by Jocelin, translated in English in 1809 by Edmund L. Swift, Esq., of Dublin in 1809, Patrick was said to have raised 33 men from the dead. Of course, none of these resurrections has been substantiated, but the debate rages on.

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St. Patrick banished snakes from Ireland?

Legend has it that St. Patrick once stood on a hilltop and, with only a wooden staff by his side, drove all the snakes from Ireland into the Irish Sea. Some still say that is why the sea is so rough. But this truly is a myth, as snakes have never been native to the island nation. One belief is that the "banishing of the snakes" was a metaphor for Patrick replacing druidic religions with Christianity.

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