There are a lot of fun traditions you can take part in on St. Patrick's Day, the greenest, luckiest, most Irish holiday of the year. There is, of course, wearing green, drinking Guinness, going to parades, and yes, the most delightful of all, pinching people. While some of those traditions, like the whole raucous partying thing, don't seem so baffling or unusual for a day of celebration, other St. Patty's customs have more unique histories. For example, the reason why you pinch people on St. Patrick's Day is a holiday practice that has roots both mythological and political. Cool, right?
For a bit of background, let's talk about how this festive holiday started in the first place. St. Patrick's Day is celebrated every year on Mar. 17 as a recognition of St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, on the day he is believed to have died in 461 AD, according to National Geographic. Although he didn't actually become a saint until many years after his death, the holiday has now been celebrated in Ireland for over 1,000 years.
Interestingly enough, according to National Geographic, Patrick wasn't even born in Ireland. He was, in fact, kidnapped from England and enslaved as a teenager. That completely inhumane circumstance is how he got over to Ireland in the first place. As the story goes, once he finally returned to his family, because a voice apparently told him to escape, that same voice told him to go back to Ireland, which he did. It was there that he found Christianity and began to convert others.
But the reason St. Patrick's Day is associated with good times and partying, according to The History Channel's website, is because Mar. 17 falls within the Christian celebration of Lent.
During Lent, there were prohibitions against eating meat and drinking booze, but for that one day, the church lifted those restrictions so people could spend the day seriously getting their merriment on. Thusly, St. Patrick's Day became a day that involved eating all the corned beef and drinking all the beer.
So, how do the other, more unusual St. Patrick's Day customs, like pinching, fall into the mix?
Well, first off, pinching is a part of the larger tradition of wearing green on St. Patty's Day. Basically, you're supposed pinch people who are not wearing green.
Interestingly enough, blue was the original color associated with the holiday. Timothy McMahon, vice president of the American Conference for Irish Studies, told TIME that, at least in the United States, for Irish people, wearing green became a symbol of pride for their home country during St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in the 19th century. It was a color associated both with Irish nationalism, as well as a color associated with Catholicism.
So, as Luke Ahearn, owner of the Irish Cultural Museum in New Orleans, told WGNO ABC, pinching people on St. Patty's Day for not getting their green on is a kind of soft reprimand for not showing Irish pride. "If you're not wearing green, you get pinched as a way to say shame on you," Ahearn explained.
The other part of the pinching tradition has to do with everyone's favorite St. Patrick's Day spokesperson: the leprechaun.
Yes, according to The Independent, legend says wearing green makes one "invisible" to leprechauns, and apparently, these magical tricksters will pinch anyone who isn't wearing green in honor of the holiday.
Nowadays, people simply pinch each other on St. Patrick's Day more as a cute reminder that they are still visible, and are potentially in danger of even more pinches. Just, you know, don't pinch any strangers or people who don't want to be pinched, you feel me?