|MAYFIELD, Ky. (BP) -- Around St. Patrick's Day in the last few years, I have noticed in some instances the replacement of the three-leaf shamrock symbol with the four-leaf clover. Since the shamrock is linked in the popular imagination with the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, is this yet another example of some in general society dismissing a Christian symbol? As an Irish-American Christian, I have also asked myself -- is this cultural phenomenon something I should be concerned about?
Before I begin this discussion, I should point out that the legend that St. Patrick used the shamrock to illustrate the Trinity is not true and is a relatively modern legend (see my Baptist Press article, "Baptists and St. Patrick" in 2008, http://www.bpnews.net/bpnews.asp?id=27634).
Prior to the genesis of the St. Patrick shamrock legend of the 17th and 18th centuries, however, Gothic churches of the middle ages portrayed the trefoil motif (a "trefoil" is any symbol with three leaves) as a symbol of the Trinity. Building on that tradition, the three-leaf shamrock became both a Christian and Irish national symbol, and the motif has appeared on nearly everything identified with St. Patrick or Irish culture for the last three centuries.
Surprisingly, the shamrock is not solely identified with one particular plant. The Gaelic word "seamrog" is the diminutive form of "clover." Although the traditional "white clover" (Trifolium repens) was thought to be the plant most identified with the three-leaf shamrock, many people today identify it with other clovers and even with the three-leaf wood sorrel (Oxalis acetosella). The latter plant is often sold in florist shops in March as the "shamrock" in the United States.
Whatever three-leaf plant is promoted as the shamrock, it has been identified as an important Christian symbol in popular culture. When I was in the first grade, my own mother demonstrated the doctrine of the Trinity by using a cardboard shamrock as she related the legend about St. Patrick. I heard the same story repeated in the public schools that I attended. At a very early age, I recognized that the shamrock was both a Christian and an Irish national symbol.
Nevertheless, the shamrock has recently acquired a rival -- the rare four-leaf clover. The four-leaf clover, a traditional symbol for "good luck," possesses only a contemporary identification with Irish culture and St. Patrick's Day. At holiday paraphernalia websites, the green four-leaf clover now competes with the shamrock.
How did the four-leaf clover acquire this status? John Melton, an English writer of the 17th century (not to be confused with John Milton), made the first literary allusion to four-leaf clovers bringing good luck. Good luck items like the four-leaf clover originate from pagan beliefs that certain things have magical powers. As a relatively modern good luck symbol, the plant possessed no long-standing history as either a Christian or Irish symbol.
That history changed in the 1960s when the General Mills cereal "Lucky Charms" entered the American marketplace. The cereal mascot, "Lucky the Leprechaun," urged young consumer to eat the cereal that contained marshmallow good luck symbols such as four-leaf clovers and a host of other good luck motifs. The cereal commercials urged consumers to eat the cereal as it was "magically delicious." In his original manifestation, the as-yet-unnamed "Lucky" donned a shamrock in his cap, but later this was replaced with a four-leaf clover in keeping with the good luck marketing theme. Since this change seemed to be more in step with the firm's marketing approach, the company meant no disrespect of what the shamrock symbol historically entailed. Nevertheless, for the first time, a marshmallow version of the four-leaf clover was linked to an Irish theme in the United States. Continued...