St David’s Day or Dydd Gŵyl Dewi Sant, in Welsh, is the feast day for the patron saint of Wales. It occurs on the 1st of March and much like our Celtic neighbours, we all have our own traditional ways of celebrating. These range from wearing leeks and daffodils on rugby shirts and traditional Welsh Costumes, to performing poetry at Eisteddfods and making Welsh cakes from a recipe handed down through generations of Nains (grandmothers).
But why do we do all of this? I’ll tell you for why…
Welsh traditions are beautiful but shrouded in a brutal history that not even a carpet the size of England would be big enough to sweep it under. The very language is over 4000 years old and one of the oldest living in Europe. Yet, it was physically beaten out of children less than 100 years ago, in an attempt to eradicate the ‘evil’ Welsh tongue. Yes, you did read that correctly. In a nutshell, during the late 19th and early 20th Century, the Welsh language was seen as a symbol of stupidity, unlawfulness and even sickness. Thus, the government at the time decided to forcefully stop it being from spoken out of the mouths of babes- quite literally. English became the only language schools were allowed to teach in, regardless of whether the pupils spoke it or not. When these children were inevitably caught speaking Welsh, the only language they knew, they were severely punished. A small wooden plank with the letters W.N. (Welsh Not) carved into it, was hung around the neck of the child caught speaking Welsh, who was then shamed and beaten in front of their classmates at the end of the day. This brutality lasted over 50 years and is arguably part of the reason why there is still a stigma attached to language today. Shocked? So was I, to learn that barely anybody outside of Wales was aware of this part of our history. The Welsh Not period was a catalyst in the fight for Welsh language and identity, a fight that many feel is still ongoing. On St. David’s Day, we celebrate our ancient language and its resilience against oppression in the form of songs and poetry at Eisteddfod’s.
An Eisteddfod (eye-steth-vod) is a celebration of Welsh tradition, originally dating back to the 1700’s where a carved wooden chair (bardic chair) was awarded to the best poet (bard). Today, the National Eisteddfod of Wales or the Eisteddfod Genedlaethol Cymru is a global Summer festival, celebrating music, dance, art, poetry and everything in between. The main event, of course, being the Chairing of the Bard. Now, in primary school, my St David’s Day Eisteddfod was slightly…different. Traditional dancing was certainly attempted by the 6 year olds and poetry endeavoured to be read aloud by eleven year olds, but all I can remember, is wearing my itchy Welsh costume and boys daring each other to eat their leeks.
Leeks, daffodils, rugby shirts and Welsh costumes are practically compulsory on March 1st, as all are key symbols of Wales. The humble Leek is not just an ingredient in Cawl (traditional Welsh stew) but was an emblem worn by soldiers in battles of the past. It is thought that Welsh soldiers wore leeks in order to distinguish themselves from their enemies, as advised by St David, himself. This turned into a tradition of wearing leeks each St. David’s Day, to remember the fallen and celebrate their country and it’s Saint. Daffodils, however, are the national flower of Wales as they traditionally bloom around St David’s Day and are worn as an alternative to leeks, especially today.
If you’re not going all-out traditional, the dress code for St David’s Day is simple; anything red. Welsh rugby shirts have become increasingly popular over the years and I must admit, once I outgrew my Welsh costume, I donned my rugby shirt and never looked back. Rugby is also a symbol of Wales. It was and still is, the sport of the working class in our country. It brings communities together, regardless of whether you watch the Six Nations or not because odds are (pre/post-pandemic) you will be down the pub in a red top anyway! Throughout school, I remember rugby matches being played on St. David’s Day, especially as everyone was already wearing their kit.
Food Glorious Food!
Our national dish is Cawl, as briefly mentioned above. A hearty stew consisting of lamb (or beef), leeks, potatoes, carrots and swede, that fed the bellies of Welsh people from as early as the 1300’s. It is a warming winter meal, fit for the cold months and perfect as a treat on March 1st. This tried and tested simple recipe has lasted throughout history, and is fondly consumed on St David’s day by many. Now, I’m not going to lie to you, but coming from South Wales, I was practically raised on Cockles and Laverbread, fresh from Penclawdd. Neither are particularly aesthetically pleasing but when I tell you that you can taste the ocean in each miniscule bite, I mean it. For those who don’t know, cockles are tiny molluscs and are what live in the little sharp shells you step on at the beach. They’re similar to scallops and oysters in that they are removed from their shells to be eaten, but cockles are far smaller and are usually consumed raw with a drop of vinegar (I personally don’t add vinegar but each to their own). Laverbread, on the other hand, is essentially mashed up seaweed, that is fried to make a traditional Welsh breakfast- lush. A Welsh breakfast is very similar to a Full English, with the addition of cockles and laverbread. Growing up, we would journey to Swansea Market to buy fresh meat from the butchers, cockles and laverbread from the stall at the heart of the market, and Welsh cakes cooked by the dozen in front of you, served piping hot in a little white paper bag.
Welsh cakes are an integral part of St David’s Day. They are the glue of the nation, holding us together through a shared love of these currant filled delights. Often enjoyed with a strong cup of tea, Welsh cakes are a delicacy served all day and there is no judgment on how many you shove in your chops. Described as somewhere between a cake and a scone, Welsh cakes or Pice ar y maen, are cooked on a traditional cast iron griddle, and coated in sugar before serving. The word ‘maen’ means ‘stone’ in Welsh, which refers to how the cakes are cooked. My own maen was a gift passed down through generations and the recipe along with it. Every year, wherever I am in the world, I make Welsh cakes on St. David’s Day.
Around the world
We know that St Patrick’s day is celebrated across the world, but did you know that St. David’s Day is too? Few people are aware that Wales is not the only place where Welsh is spoken, or our traditions are celebrated. Patagonia, Argentina is home of the largest Welsh settlements outside of the UK. It has three bilingual Welsh/Spanish schools, holds eisteddfodau each year to celebrate Welsh culture and has a big old party on St. David’s Day to boot. Their flag incorporates both the Welsh and Argentinian flags, a homage to both nations. Further across the world, parties take place in Australia and New Zealand, with residents celebrating their ancestral heritage and current connections to Wales. With Mount Pembroke in New Zealand and Cardiff in New South Wales, Australia, it’s easy to see how a link to Wales can be found somewhere!
I do realise, I have not yet mentioned much about the man of the hour, St. David, so allow me to briefly butcher his history. It is estimated that he died on 1st March around 589 AD or 601 AD and was born some 30-80 years before that, in Ceredigion. Though his birthdate is not known, his actions during his life were renowned. As a monk, he regularly preached across the country, founded churches and even travelled to Brittany to teach the word of God. One day, whilst delivering a sermon in Llanddewi Brefi, the ground rose beneath him and formed a hill. This is considered to be one of his most famous miracles. He was also a strict vegetarian and is the patron saint of vegetarians as well as poets and of course, Wales. His shrine is at St. David’s, Pembrokeshire where he was buried, and it is the smallest city in the UK. I would thoroughly recommend a visit to the quaint idyllic village-sized city, once restrictions are lifted.
For me, St. David’s Day is about remembering the past, appreciating my ancestors and keeping traditions alive. Wales is only a small country where sheep outnumber us 3 to 1 and it rains more than it doesn’t. Our accents can be comedic, and our phrases can be confusing. The language might not like to include many vowels, but to us, it makes sense. I am proud of my home and my history and I hope to have shared some of that on the day on which we celebrate our Patron Saint. Diolch a Dydd Gŵyl Dewi Sant Hapus Pawb.
Thank you, and Happy Saint David’s Day everyone.