The legend of the leprechaun is older than the holiday itself.

By Emily VanSchmus
February 19, 2021
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As we prepare to celebrate St. Patrick's Day at home this year, I've already seen several images of DIY leprechaun traps (a fun St. Patrick's Day activity for kids) pop up on my timeline. This got me thinking about the fact that although the little green men aren't real, leprechauns—and the little gold coins they collect—have come to be associated with St. Patrick's Day. But have you ever wondered where the tradition came from?

There's actually a surprising connection between the mythical figures and the history of St. Patrick's Day—and the legend dates back farther than the holiday itself.

Credit: sharpner/Getty Images

Leprechauns were first written about in old Irish fables, so it makes sense that they'd be associated with a holiday dedicated to Irish culture. If you're not familiar with the original legend of the leprechaun, it goes like this: Leprechauns were small pint-sized men who worked as shoemakers and hid gold coins in pots at the end of rainbows. Legend has it that these tiny creatures were very hard to catch, because they were so small—but if you were able to catch one, you'd be granted three wishes by the leprechaun in exchange for setting him free. 

Because of these old fables, leprechauns have been associated with Irish culture for centuries—likely even farther back than the original St. Patrick's Day. But they actually didn't become tied with the holiday until much more recently. 

In 1959, Walt Disney released a film called Darby O'Gill and the Little People, which was about an old Irish man and his experiences with magical leprechauns. While the movie was based in Ireland, it had a primarily American audience. Because leprechauns were already so heavily associated with Irish culture, and because this movie was released in the mid 1900s (around the same time St. Patrick's Day parades and celebrations became increasingly popular in the United States), the mythical creatures became a symbol of the holiday. 

So while they originally only existed in Irish folklore, today it's common to see people dressed as leprechauns in St. Patrick's Day parades and other events—although they're much less likely to be able to tell you where you can find a pot of gold!

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