On 1 March we celebrate St. David’s Day, so let’s take a look at some of the traditions and history of Wales, this beautiful land of towering mountains, green hills and the red dragon.
Who was Saint David?
St. David (Dewi Sant) was born in the south-west of Wales some time around 500 AD and was reputed to have lived for over 100 years. Throughout his life he is said to have travelled widely, even as far as Jerusalem, and performed several miracles. The best known of these occurred when he was preaching at Llandewi Brefi in Ceredigion. Some in the crowd complained they couldn’t hear him, upon which the ground rose up beneath his feet so that everyone could see, and a white dove settled on his shoulder.
The city of St. David is built on the coast, close to where he lived. It is a city - albeit the smallest one in Britain with a population of under 2,000 - due to it having a cathedral. St. David is buried at the cathedral, and his shrine was a popular place of pilgrimage through the Middle Ages. His last words are still used as a popular maxim in Wales today – "Do the little things in life."
Across Wales, people celebrate St. David’s Day every year with parades and concerts. A National St. David’s Day parade is held in Cardiff through the town centre. Many of the participants will be wearing red and yellow, and the parade is led by the figure of St. David, and includes performances from giant dragons, choirs and theatre groups. The parade ends with the entire crowd singing the national anthem - Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau.
Why is the leek the symbol of Wales?
Many Welsh people pin the emblems of Wales to their clothes on St. David’s Day– a leek or a daffodil. The reason for the leek being a symbol of Wales is lost in the mists of time but an enduring story, helped by Shakespeare, is that Welsh archers wore leeks when they fought for Henry V at Agincourt.
Looking further back, some tales suggest that in the 6th century, St. David suggested that the men went into battle against the Saxons wearing a leek so they could recognise each other from the enemy. Today, it has become tradition for the Royal Welsh regiment to eat a raw leek on St. David’s Day.
What is the Welsh connection to Daffodils?
The link to the other well-known Welsh emblem, the daffodil, is even harder to explain. The commonly accepted link is that the word for daffodil and leek in Welsh is similar – Cenhinen for leek and Cenhinen Pedr for daffodil. It also may have something to do with the fact that St. David’s Day falls on 1 March, when daffodils are in bloom.
A Welsh love spoon
A particularly lovely tradition that dates back to at least the 17th century is the Welsh love spoon. Young men would carve a wooden spoon, intricately decorated with Celtic knots and symbols of love, to present to the girl they hoped to impress with their carpentry. It was a way to show their beloved’s family that they had woodworking skills and could provide for a family. Nowadays, love spoons are often given as wedding or anniversary gifts.
Traditional Welsh dishes
Wales is, of course, famous for succulent roast lamb, but did you know another traditional dish is Welsh rarebit – a bit like posh cheese on toast? Other dishes include Welsh cakes, Bara Brith – known as speckled bread - and Teisen Lap – which means 'cake on a plate.'
Traditional dishes were all hearty simple foods to feed people who made their living in demanding manual work, such as farmers, miners, and fishermen. One such meal is Cawl, a soup or broth made with fresh meat and vegetables and served with Welsh cheese.
King Arthur and the red dragon
The flag of Wales bears the proud red dragon – an icon that can be traced back to Arthurian legend. One tale says that Merlin, advisor to the king, had a dream of two dragons, one red and one white, fighting, which he said represented Arthur defeating the Saxon hordes.
Another legend is that of the Celtic king Vortigern, who wanted to build a fortress on top of Dinas Emrys near Beddgelert. Every night the walls would fall down, and Merlin advised him that two dragons, one red and one white, were fighting under the ground. Vortigern and his men dug down into the mountain and released the dragons, who continued to fight until the red dragon won. Arthurian writers claimed that this was a foretelling of the coming of Arthur.
A national day off?
St. David’s Day is not a recognised bank holiday. However, many children will go to school in a traditional Welsh costume. The girls will wear a gown, skirts, and shawl, and the recognisable tall black hat. Some schools even close for a half-day, allowing time to join in parades and celebrations.
If you are thinking of visiting Wales, there’s no better time than St. David’s Day. As well as the fabulous parades, many of the historic houses and castles waive entrance fees on the day. The mountains will resound with voices as the Welsh, famous for their love of music, host concerts, with perhaps the biggest being the BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales in Cardiff.
St. David’s Day falls this Friday and there’s just time to book a cabin at Beddgelert in Snowdonia, giving you the perfect start to a weekend break. Book your weekend away in Wales and join in the celebrations – just keep an eye out for dragons!