Leprechauns are small and green,

Hiding where they can’t be seen.

But if you catch one on this day,

He must give his gold away.

-Author unknown

The myths and legends of the Irish holiday known as St. Patrick’s Day is a mixture of Celtic traditions and American interpretations.

The saint known as St. Patrick was born to a wealthy family in Britain around 400 A.D. He was taken prisoner at the age of 16 by Irish raiders, who were attacking his family estate. He then lived in captivity for six years.

Patrick eventually escaped and spent the next few years as a humble shepherd. According to his writings, dreams and visions convinced him to return to Ireland to become a priest and a missionary of Christ-ianity. St. Patrick became known for his rituals, bonfires and storytelling, where he began a tradition of celebrating Easter with a bonfire.

Because most Irish practiced a nature-based pagan religion, St. Patrick combined his love of Christianity with the practices already favored by the people. He grew in fame in the Irish culture, which centered around a rich tradition of oral legend and myth.

The color blue was first associated with St. Patrick, but due to the rolling hills of Ireland and the emphasis on spring and nature in general, green became the color theme with St. Patrick’s Day and the Irish at some point, according to History-.com.

A bright green plant called a seamroy by the Celts (pronounced Kelts) was sacred in ancient Ireland because it symbolized the rebirth of spring. In English cultures, the seamroy was known as a shamrock. By the 17th century, the shamrock symbolized freedom from British oppression and emerged as the icon of Irish nationalism. While English tyrants and lords seized Irish land and made laws against the use of the Irish language (Gaelic/Celtic), Catholicism and Celtic music, the symbol grew in popularity. As a symbol of Irish pride and heritage, the bright green shamrock also showed defiance against English rule. Although the shamrock typically grew with three-leaf clovers, the discovery of a four-leaf clover was believed to bring good luck.

The Leprechaun

In Irish folklore a “lobaircin,” or leprechaun, simply means a small-bodied fellow.

The widespread myth of leprechauns most likely came from Celtic belief in fairies or elusive, tiny people who could use magic in the name of good or evil.

Tricksters by nature, leprechauns were cranky, greedy and a force to be reckoned with. In the time of St. Patrick and for hundreds of years after his death, leprechauns had nothing to do with the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, a Catholic holy day.

Enter the American dreamer with strong Irish roots.

Walt Disney, the son of Irish-Canadian Elias Disney, released a film called “Darby O’Gill & the Little People” in 1959, which introduced the country and the world to a new sort of leprechaun. Changing the image of a bitter, cranky being, he introduced a new leprechaun who was cheerful, friendly and whimsical. Purely an American invention, the leprechaun today is known to be a happy soul waiting at the end of a rainbow with a pot of gold. If captured on St. Paddy’s day, he has to turn over the loot without question.

The holiday of St. Patrick is celebrated on the day he died in 460 A.D. on March 17.

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