The daffodils and snowdrops have almost gone, but on 1 March Welsh people all over the world will celebrate their patron saint on St. David’s Day. But what do leeks and daffodils have to do with this special day and how do the Welsh celebrate? Here is what you need to know to pay tribute to St. David & to being Welsh.
Who is St. David?
Saint David (Dewi Sant in Welsh) is the patron saint of Wales (and also doves, BTW). He was born to Sant, a prince of Cardigan and Non, the daughter of a chieftain in Caerfai in Pembrokeshire around 500 AD. Saint David was an early Christian missionary that traveled to Brittany, Cornwall, Ireland, and Jerusalem and founded 12 monasteries, including Glastonbury. He was thought to have been the nephew of King Arthur on his mother’s side and stands today as a symbol of Welsh resistance against the Normans. He is also known for being a strict vegetarian, for pious austerity, and for his ability to perform miracles.
St. David died on 1 March 589 AD and most of his remains (except his head and arm, which were stolen by King Edward I as holy relics) are buried in St. David’s Cathedral in Pembrokeshire. His burial site became a popular place for pilgrimage since he was canonized in 1120 A.D.
During his last sermon, his message to his followers was “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”. “Gwnewch y pethan bychain” or “do the little things” remains a national inspirational motto in Wales to this day.
St. David’s Day is NOT a national holiday in the UK. In 2007 Tony Blair rejected calls for St. David’s Day to become a bank holiday, despite a poll revealing that 87 percent of Welsh people wanted it.
What’s with the leeks and daffodils?
The tradition of eating and pinning a leek to your clothes to celebrate St. David’s Day goes back to the 6th century when St. David supposedly ordered his soldiers to wear leeks on their helmets into battle against the Saxons so that they could easily tell friend from foe. This supposedly helped secure a victory. Today soldiers in the Welsh regiments still eat a raw leek for good luck on St. David’s Day.
The daffodil is the national flower of Wales and is traditionally worn on St. David’s Day. In Welsh, the daffodil is known as “cenhinen Bedr” or Saint Peter’s leek. They’re also usually blooming in Wales at this time of year.
What about that big red dragon?
The red dragon can be traced back to Arthurian legend and a dream experienced by Merlin, later to be Camelot’s court wizard and chief advisor to the king, who foresaw a red and white dragon fighting and understood it to represent the coming of Arthur to chase off the Saxon hordes.
The myth (although I think it really should be called ‘history’) is recorded in some of Britain’s oldest prose literature, including the Mabinogion and Historia Brittonium but became more concrete in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain in 1136.
What kind of things do people do on St. David’s Day?
The National St. David’s Day Parade is held in the middle of Cardiff every year with lots of exciting performances by large dragons and theatre groups. Large parades are also held in Aberystwyth, Wrexham, and Llandudno every year.
Many children wear traditional Welsh clothing, along with their leeks and daffodils, and take part in dances. Across the country, lots of towns and villages host their own parades and concerts, whilst many of the country’s castles and heritage sites let people visit for free.
Since COVID, most of the St. David’s Day festivities were canceled. There is a parade in Cardiff this year, so that’s a good sign. Some things you might be able to do if you are in Wales on St. David’s Day:
You can go to St. David’s, Britain’s smallest city, and take part in the festivities at St. David’s Cathedral where you can participate in bell ringing and special choral services. There’s also a pilgrims’ walk, leading you in the footsteps of saints from ancient St. Non’s Chapel through the city’s streets to the Cathedral.
There’s a special celebration at Bala Lake Railway, allowing you to ride for free if you’re from North Wales (bring proof of your address) or for half-price if you’re from the rest of Wales.
How do you say ‘Happy St. David’s Day’ in Welsh?
Dydd Gwyl Dewi Hapus. To pronounce it phonetically: “deeth goil Dew-ee ha-peece”.
A feast for St. David’s Day.
One of the more fun and exciting things to do (at least I think so) is to cook some good Welsh food. The traditional meal on St. David’s Day is a soup made from leeks, veggies, and lamb known as Cawl. You can find the recipe for Cawl as well as other traditional Welsh eats, including Bara Brith, Welsh Cakes, Welsh rarebit, and more here.