Happy St David’s Day! Dydd Gwŷl Dewi (Sant) hapus!
Visit Wales on March 1 and you can’t help but notice it’s a special day here with many opportunities to witness displays and celebrations of Welsh national pride. The Red Dragon flags are flying and hosts of golden daffodils adorn shop windows and homes. Folks will pin a felt leek or a daffodil to their lapels while children dress up in traditional costume. Celebratory parades and concerts are held in towns and villages throughout the country.
All is in honour of Dewi Sant – St David – but not much is actually known about the patron saint himself.
St David – Patron Saint of Wales
Dewi Sant or St David lived in the sixth century and died on 1 March 589AD. He was a Celtic monk, abbot and bishop.
Dewi is said to have been of royal lineage. His father, Sant, was the son of Ceredig, who was prince of Ceredigion, a region in South-West Wales. His mother, Non, was the daughter of a local chieftain and legend has it that she was also a niece of King Arthur.
He was born near Capel Non (Non’s chapel) on the South-West Wales coast near the present city of Saint David. He was educated in a monastery called Hen Fynyw, in Cardiganshire, his teacher being Paulinus, a blind monk and stayed there for some years before setting out with a party of followers on his missionary travels, founding religious centres across Wales and England, including one at Glastonbury along the way. He travelled as far as Jerusalem, where he was made an archbishop. During his life, he was the archbishop of Wales, and he was one of many early saints who helped to spread Christianity among the pagan Celtic tribes of western Britain.
He eventually settled at Glyn Rhosyn, now St. Davids, in south west Wales, where he established a religious community. Many miracles have been attributed to him. The most incredible being when he caused the ground to rise beneath him when preaching so that everyone could see and hear him.
It is claimed that Dewi lived for over 100 years, and it is generally accepted that he died in 589. His last words to his followers were in a sermon on the previous Sunday. Rhigyfarch transcribes these as ‘Be joyful, and keep your faith and your creed. Do the little things that you have seen me do and heard about. I will walk the path that our fathers have trod before us.’
‘Do the little things’ (‘Gwnewch y pethau bychain’) is today a very well-known phrase in Welsh, and has proved an inspiration to many.
St David’s remains are buried within the Cathedral of St David in the lovely coastal town of St David’s in Pembrokeshire, south west Wales, which is the smallest city in Britain. The location became a popular place of pilgrimage and it was said that two pilgrimages to St Davids equalled one to Rome and three equalled one to Jerusalem. The most well-known medieval pilgrimage route begins at Holywell, Flintshire North Wales and ends at St Davids.
To mark the Saint’s day, Welsh people around the world wear one or both of our national emblems – a daffodil or leek.
The connection between Wales and the leek is obscure. Most researchers trying to trace the link are met with one or other of the legends that show it was used by the Welsh as a cap badge in battle to show friend from foe.
One version is that on the eve of a battle with the Saxons, St David himself advised the Britons to wear leeks in their caps so that they could easily distinguish friend from foe. This apparently helped to secure a great victory. A variation of that is that the leek is worn to celebrate the battle as it was won in a field of leeks.
Another version has the same thing happening at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 where Welsh archers fought with Henry V against the French. Again, leeks worn in their caps distinguished them from their enemies.
By 1536, when Henry VIII gave a leek to his daughter on 1 March, the leek was already associated with St David’s Day. It is possible that the green and white family colours adopted by the Tudors were taken from their liking for the leek.
Since the 6th Century Welsh soldiers have worn a leek in their caps to distinguish themselves from their foes in battle. Welsh soldiers today still have cap badges and buttons with leeks on and it is a surviving tradition that soldiers in the Welsh regiments eat a raw leek on St David’s Day.
If the link between the leek and the Welsh is obscure, then that with the Daffodil is even more so. It is possible that the reason the daffodil is used as an emblem is that the word for daffodil and for leek are the same in Welsh (Cenhinen = Leek, Cenhinen Pedr =Daffodil ). This confusion means that both have been adopted as national emblems and the use of one over the other is down to personal preference.
In comparison with the ancient Welsh associations of the leek, the daffodil has only recently assumed a position of national importance. It is said by some that the daffodil was encouraged more by the English government, as it does not have the nationalistic overtones that the leek has, with its association with the defeat of Saxons.
The Victorians are reputed to have introduced the alternative daffodils we pin to our lapels instead of leeks on St David’s Day. A common vegetable such as the leek wasn’t considered glamorous enough to be the Welsh national emblem and the daffodil, whose flowering coincides with the Welsh patron saint’s holiday, seemed like a fitting replacement.
An increasingly popular flower during the 19th century, especially among women, its status was elevated by the Welsh-born prime minister David Lloyd George, who wore it on St David’s Day and used it in ceremonies in 1911 to mark the investiture of the then Prince of Wales at Caernarfon.
Welsh and Tenby daffodils
There are types of daffodil unique to Wales – the Welsh daffodil or Lent lily and the Tenby daffodil, although there is still debate as to whether the Tenby Daffodil is naturalised or introduced. The only other true British native daffodil, Narcissus pseudonarcissus, also found mainly in south Wales is known as the Lent Lily because it flowers through February, March and sometimes early April, therefore over the period of lent.
The diminuitive little Tenby daffodil, growing to just 20cm (8″) tall is all one colour. It is so called because it is mostly found growing wild around the Tenby area. It can also be found in other areas of Pembrokeshire, Carmarthenshire and Ceredigion but is scarce.
The Tenby daffodil suffered in Victorian times from being too popular as they were regularly dug up and became quite scarce but replanting has helped and nowadays you’ll see plenty in the spring time around Tenby.
A version of the Tenby Daffodil has been cultivated since medieval times and the Royal Horticultural Society have now given it their prestigious Award of Garden Merit (AGM) in recognition of its outstanding excellence.
The Welsh variety is more widespread, but still scarce. The Welsh daffodil or Lenten lily is two toned in colour with a different shade of yellow/ orange on the trumpet to that of the petals.
One of the biggest displays of Welsh daffodils can be seen at Coed y Bwl Wood, at Castle Upon Alun, near Bridgend.
Both species have suffered decline over the years as a result of property development on land where they once thrived.
celebrations of the day
The tradition of celebrating St. David’s day is still much alive throughout Wales and in many parts of the world where there are communities of people with Welsh origins.
Towns all over Wales celebrate with special meetings, parades, concerts and a myriad of other events. The National St David’s Day Parade across the centre of Cardiff, features all sorts of fiery performances from giant dragons and theatrical groups finishing with a rousing mass rendition of the national anthem, Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau outside St David’s Hall. A special gala concert from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales is traditionally held in the evening. Male voice choirs are flown to all corners of the globe on St. David’s Day, to entertain Welsh communities.
Many of the country’s castles and heritage sites open their doors for free on the day, including St David’s Bishop’s Palace, and the surrounding streets are the scenes for a fitting mini-festival in honour of their holiest former resident. Led by clergy, the annual Pilgrims’ Walk leads to the illumination of the St David’s Day Stone, ending at the Oriel y Parc, where you can wander around a traditional Welsh market or dance to live bands.
Schools throughout the country celebrate the day. My own children attended Welsh Medium schools in South Wales and St. David’s Day, particulary at their primary school was a looked-forward to special event.
Pupils went to school dressed in Welsh costumes. The girls wore variations on the traditional pais a betgwn – a petticoat and overcoat, made of Welsh flannel, and a felt beaver hat, worn over a frilled white bonnet.
Boys were persuaded to wear a white shirt with a a Welsh flannel waistcoat, black breeches, long woollen socks, black shoes and a traditional Dai cap, although in these more modern times others favoured their Welsh rugby shirts.
The day would include a walk to the local chapel for a religious service. Later in the day a mini-Eisteddford (concert) took place, where traditional songs and dances were performed and poems read. A photographer from the local newspaper visited all the local schools took photographs of each class of children which were subsequently printed in the next edition as souvenir supplements. Happy days!