Saint David’s Day (Welsh: Dydd Gŵyl Dewi Sant or Dydd Gŵyl Dewi, Welsh pronunciation: [ˈdiːð ˈɡʊi̯l ˈdɛ.wi ˈsant]) is the feast day of Saint David, the patron saint of Wales, and falls on 1 March, the date of Saint David’s death in 589 AD. The feast has been regularly celebrated since the canonisation of David in the 12th century (by Pope Callixtus II), though it is not a national holiday in the UK.
Traditional festivities include wearing daffodils and leeks, recognised symbols of Wales and Saint David respectively, eating traditional Welsh food including cawl and Welsh rarebit, and women wearing traditional Welsh dress. An increasing number of cities and towns across Wales including Cardiff, Swansea and Aberystwyth also put on parades throughout the day.
Significance of the day
Saint David (Welsh: Dewi Sant) was born in Caerfai, south west Wales into an aristocratic family. He was reportedly a scion of the royal house of Ceredigion, and founded a Celtic monastic community at Glyn Rhosyn (The Vale of Roses) on the western headland of Pembrokeshire (Welsh: Sir Benfro) at the spot where St David’s Cathedral stands today.
David’s fame as a teacher and his asceticism spread among Celtic Christians, and he helped found about 12 monasteries. His foundation at Glyn Rhosyn became an important Christian shrine, and the most important centre in Wales. The date of Saint David’s death is believed to be 1 March 589. His final words to the community of monks were: “Brothers be ye constant. The yoke which with single mind ye have taken, bear ye to the end; and whatsoever ye have seen with me and heard, keep and fulfil.”
For centuries, 1 March has been a national festival. Saint David was recognised as a national patron saint in the 12th century at a peak time of Welsh resistance to the Normans. He was canonised by Pope Callixtus II in 1120. The 17th-century diarist Samuel Pepys noted how Welsh celebrations in London for Saint David’s Day would spark wider counter-celebrations amongst their English neighbours: life-sized effigies of Welshmen were symbolically lynched, and by the 18th century the custom had arisen of confectioners producing “taffies”—gingerbread figures baked in the shape of a Welshman riding a goat—on Saint David’s Day.
Unlike Saint Patrick’s Day in Ireland, Saint David’s Day is not a national holiday, though there is strong support for it becoming a bank holiday in Wales. In the past, schools have taken a half-day holiday, which continues in some parts of Wales. Saint David’s Day is also celebrated in expatriate Welsh communities outside the UK. Cross-party support resulted in the National Assembly for Wales voting unanimously to make Saint David’s Day a public holiday in 2000. A poll conducted for Saint David’s Day in 2006 found that 87% of people in Wales wanted it to be a bank holiday, with 65% prepared to sacrifice a different bank holiday to achieve this. A petition in 2007 to make Saint David’s Day a bank holiday was rejected by the office of the British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
In the poem Armes Prydein (The Prophesy of Britain), composed in the early to mid-10th century, the anonymous author prophesies that the Cymry (the Welsh people) will unite and join an alliance of fellow-Celts to repel the Anglo-Saxons, under the banner of Saint David: A lluman glân Dewi a ddyrchafant (“And they will raise the pure banner of Dewi”). Although there were occasional Welsh uprisings in the Middle Ages, the country was briefly united by various Welsh princes before its conquest at different times, and it arguably had a very short period of independence during the rising of Owain Glyndŵr, but Wales as a whole was never an independent kingdom for long. Henry Tudor, 2nd Earl of Richmond, who was born in Pembroke Castle as a patrilineal descendant of the Tudor Dynasty of North Wales, became King Henry VII of England after his victory over Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, to end the Wars of the Roses. Henry’s green and white banner with a red dragon became a rallying point for Welsh patriotism with the memory of Saint David on his Feast Day. Henry was the first monarch of the House of Tudor, and during the reign of that dynasty the royal coat of arms included the Welsh Dragon, a reference to the monarch’s origin. The banner from Henry’s victory was not adopted as the official Flag of Wales until 1959.
The flag of Saint David, however, a golden cross on a black background, was not part of the symbolism of House of Tudor.
by Simon schofield