The Wearing Of The Green

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 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!


9 Responses to The Wearing Of The Green

  1. poetloverrebelspy says:

    I am going to Dublin today and of course I will wear green! I’m even taking my green coat (tho that is more because it is supposed to SNOW in Ireland on Monday). I’ll try to post some pics of the greened Liffey!

  2. B Barron says:

    I wear green quite often, despite the fact that I also have heard that it’s UNLUCKY. (Hmm…maybe I should analyze this more carefully!) My extra effort tomorrow will be my St. Patrick socks, which are black but patterned with shamrocks. As to the Liffey, I look forward to seeing poetloverrebelspy’s pics; when I visited Dublin several years ago, the Liffey was kind of a mud color. Just looking at it made me glad to hear that the water used to make Guinness (the brewery is right on the banks or the river) is no longer drawn from the Liffey. 🙂

  3. Kevin says:

    I tend to wear green on or around St. Patrick’s Day not for any kind of superstitious reasons, but because growing up, my classmates always assaulted by pinching those who didn’t wear green on that day. It is particularly necessary to defend oneself from these pinching attacks when one is incredibly ticklish, thus exacerbating the irritations and possibly resulting in an involuntary jerk that injures someone. I’m even wearing green at work today, just in case.

    Awesome discussion of the history of green and fairies in Irish history/mythology. That’s way more involved than I had ever really considered.

  4. akdmyers says:

    I never remember when St. Patrick’s Day is, but I always feel vaguely irritated with myself if I don’t wear green on St. Patrick’s Day, since I am mostly Scotch-Irish, after all. Whether I wear green tomorrow depends entirely on how groggy I am when I wake up and what happens to be clean. I meant to wear green to work today, but since I’m wearing various shades of brown instead, I obviously forgot.
    My only strong association with St. Patrick’s Day is that in elementary school, there was a kid in my class whose birthday was St. Patrick’s Day, and he always brought green popcorn.
    My question is, when and why the heck did St. Patrick’s Day turn into a giant green drinking fest? Since it falls during spring break this year, the bars in Carbondale even celebrated it early so all the students could get smashed while wearing green. Why? Isn’t it originally supposed to celebrate there not being snakes in Ireland anymore or something?

  5. B Barron says:

    Good question about the drinking fest. I think the part about driving the snakes from Ireland is a myth, though. I don’t think snakes ever inhabited Ireland because of it’s an island.

  6. akdmyers says:

    Well, there’s nothing like a myth to start centuries of fine holiday tradition, is there?

    Being a good little librarian, I did a wee bit of research and find that while snakes probably never inhabited Ireland in the first place (as B Barron points out), some people think the story of St. Patrick driving them from the island may be a metaphor for his conversion of the pagans. His presence and success as a Christian (and Catholic) missionary in Ireland is why he is celebrated; St. Patrick’s Day originated as a Catholic high holy day, but obviously has developed into a more secular occasion. How that happened is still a mystery to me (and I’m not wading through all the junk on the Internet this afternoon to find out!).

  7. jennie says:

    Well, St. Patrick’s Day, (St.) Valentine’s Day, All Hallow’s Eve (preceding All Saints Day) are all Saints Days/High Holy Days that have turned into something completely different.

    I will probably not wear green, because I don’t have a lot of wintery green and tomorrow is calling for snow (IN VIRGINIA! My poor crocuses and long-suffering daffodils).

    I don’t often wear green on St. Patrick’s day though, because I am not awake enough in the morning to remember such details.

  8. […] derived from Celtic tradition. For further thoughts on some of this, do be sure to check out The Wearing of the Green, posted here on the Buffet just yesterday. I’ve endeavoured to record some small part of the […]

  9. TheGnat says:

    I doubt anybody will read this comment now, but I didn’t get a chance to peruse the Buffet this weekend, so I’m catching up.

    Giving a lady the “old green gown” is a reference to well, *ahem* having a lady on her back on the grass. Some researchers think that “Greensleeves” might actually be a very tongue-in-cheek lyric. Old Green Gown is song exemplifying the topic.

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