So, is anyone planning to wear green specifically on St. Patrick’s Day? I waver. My green wardrobe is limited, and I always feel slightly silly looking for something green on the morning of March 17th, even though I am technically almost half Irish. But if I’m totally forthright, I have to admit that there’s another reason: I’m superstitious. Or rather, I’m not so much superstitious as of the opinion that it should be respected. And green has traditionally been a dicey sort of color to go around flaunting.
Not that people didn’t do it. But in Celtic regions especially, green was for a long time associated with fairies; not the sweet little Disney kind, but the older, less reputable kind who thought nothing of beguiling hapless mortals away for just one quick dance and either killing them or keeping them around for periods of time which turned out (once the mortal had finished the “dance”) to last for decades. Not entities you want to screw around with. As for why green is/was their color in particular, it’s not certain, but leading speculation is that it’s because green is the color of nature, and fairies were very much of nature – too much so, since in addition having nature’s good properties they also shared fully in the bad ones (being capricious and potentially fatal). A human who went outside – especially into an isolated area – wearing green was considered to be, in some ways, asking for it.
This turns up in a number of places – probably the oldest and best-know example is in the ballad of Tam Lin, where Janet, the heroine, goes to Carterhaugh despite warnings that Tam Lin, the human in thrall to the fairies, will challenge her.
Janet has kilted her green kirtle
A little aboon her knee,
And she has broded her yellow hair
A little aboon her bree,
And she’s awa to Carterhaugh
As fast as she can hie.
(This is from Child Ballad version 39A – you can read the whole version, as well as a lot of others, at tam-lin.org). When she subsequently goes to rescue Tam Lin on Halloween night, it’s pointed out again that she wears “a green mantle”. The green mantle, being the fairy color, served to attract the attention of fairies or fairy-allies. There are many different versions of Tam Lin, but the green mantle remains in almost all of them, bringing Tam Lin to the heroine.
Partially because of this sort of thing, green didn’t have the best reputation as a wedding-dress color either. I don’t know how true it is that bridesmaids originally served the function of confusing any supernatural entities who wanted to abduct the bride (and would presumably slink away, befuddled, if confronted with several bridally-dressed girls), but wearing green was not always encouraged on this very sensitive occasion. A running feature you’ll find in a lot of fairy-abduction stories is that the abducted women (abductees aren’t always women, but they often are) are at a major life turning point – the wedding day, and the months of pregnancy are the commonest ones. There’s a possibility that this belief is also part of what lies behind the jingle of “Marry in green/Be ashamed to be seen,” but since color properties in those jingles depend heavily on what the color name happens to rhyme with, that would be stretching things a bit. (The rhyme for white is “Marry in white/You have chosen all right,” which to me at least sounds distinctly unenthusiastic).
I don’t mean to exaggerate the prevalence of this tradition – certainly it was around, but it wasn’t like it had some sort of iron grip on the entire British Isles. L.M. Montgomery, whose immediate ancestry was Celtic, writes in her journal about her mother’s wedding dress – “a brilliant green” – and how she wishes that she still had it in its original form. (Montgomery’s mother died when Montgomery was one year old; several years later her grandmother, never one to be overly sentimental, had the dress ripped apart to be remade in a more current fashion). Montgomery never mentions anything about green being an odd property in a wedding dress, and certainly she was interested enough in fairy stories.
The motif still pops up here and there, though, and I enjoy seeing it — most recently in Pan’s Labyrinth. As the movie went on, I couldn’t help noticing that little Ofelia was wearing at least some green in every single scene – the fancy dress her mother gives her is forest green, of course, and later on she turns up in a dress with muted green stripes, but except for the scenes where she’s in her nightgown I don’t believe she’s ever not wearing green. It could be a coincidence, of course, but I like to think the director did it on purpose. (Maybe that’s why her stepfather couldn’t see the faun – it wasn’t that he was a morally-blind monster, he just didn’t know the dress code).
So I’m not sure what our more-distant Celtic forebears would think of all of these people who are – horrors! – deliberately going outside wearing this dubious color. Of course, I’m not sure what they’d make of Shamrock Shakes, either, and I don’t intend to let their possible disapproval stop me there, should I unaccountably feel the urge to have one!
What do you guys think? Favourite color symbolism, least favourite symbolism, symbolism of different colors in different places? Any other green/fairytale sightings? Any opinion on what it means if you’re married in orange? That particular color doesn’t seem to come up in rhymes, for some reason :). Though of course, it would still be best avoided on St. Patrick’s Day!