It’s another great Celtic festival today: St David’s Day, the national holiday of Wales! Like its equivalents, St Patrick’s Day in Ireland and St Andrew’s Day in Scotland, it is named after the patron saint of the country – but unlike the other two, it isn’t an official holiday; a petition in 2007 to make it one was rejected by the British Prime Minister. Still, it is most certainly a special day in Wales and everywhere where there are Welsh: parades and food festivals are held in the cities, the biggest one in Cardiff.
Another tradition is one you’ve probably all heard of: the eisteddfod – a festival and competition of music and literature, held on St David’s Day at Welsh schools. It goes back to the old days of the Celtic bards, it consists of recitations of poetry and singing of Welsh folk songs, and the girls wear traditional dresses with aprons and long skirts and the typical Welsh hat similar to a top hat to commemorate the history of their country.
But who was Saint David? He lived in the 6th century, the son of a nun who was raped; he went into monasticism and teaching himself from an early age. He founded monasteries in Wales, England and even in Brittany in France. In about 550, he attended the Synod of Brefi, where he spoke so fervently against the heresy of Pelagianism that was plaguing the Church at the time that he was made a bishop. David was hugely popular among the Welsh people, and he gave them an example of a simple lifestyle: hard manual work, no personal possessions, no alcohol or meat! Here’s a detailed account on his life and work:
But back to St David’s Day as it is celebrated today – times have changed, of course, and few people in Wales are ascetics; and especially on this day, they prepare all sorts of tasty traditional Welsh meals that have got nothing to do with fasting! Lamb, cawl (a nutritious beef soup), tarts, smoked salmon, and of course THE Welsh speciality that’s known all over the world: Welsh rarebit. It’s not only incredibly yummy, but also really easy to prepare – so, if you want to try it out on this special day, here’s the recipe!
You can even decorate the house with the symbols of Wales if you like: the leek and the daffodil, and of course the Red Dragon, the symbol of the Celtic Britons who inhabited Britain for many centuries and who were restricted to the area of Wales by the invasion of the Anglo-Saxons (whose symbol is a white dragon). There are other symbols as well, though, as this photo shows: you can spot a Welsh Mam, the cute old lady with the traditional dress who symbolises the country, a picture of St David’s Cathedral in Pembrokeshire, and – a rugby ball… The Welsh are absolutely crazy about rugby, and they’ve always had an outstanding national team which has often defeated the teams of much bigger countries, like England or France! Have a look at them next weekend, on the next matchday of the Six Nations Cup… (Photo: southwales-eveningpost.co.uk)
And then there’s that other special feature of Wales, so fascinating and beautiful: the Welsh language. It’s an old Celtic language, like Cornish and Breton belonging to the group of Brittonic languages (in contrast to the Goidelic languages, Irish and Scottish Gaelic and Manx). It may sound and look strange, even intimidating, at first – all those w’s and y’s, and that ll that seems almost impossible to pronounce! But it’s got that exotic beauty of a very old language – and one that’s been suppressed for centuries by the English, who conquered Wales in the late 13th century. Banned from secondary schools and official life, it managed to survive ‘underground’, and from the 20th century there has been a big revival; that touching last line of the Welsh national anthem came true: ‘o bydded i’r hen iaith barhau’ – ‘oh may the old language endure’…
Especially on this day of all, don’t we just crave to use those few words we know of the language – even though, or maybe because they all seem to be much longer and more complicated than in English? ‘Os gwelwch yn dda’ means ‘please’, ‘esgusodwch fi’ is ‘excuse me’, ‘faint o’r gloch ydy hi’ is ‘what time is it’… Want to learn more, say the basics for a holiday in Wales or just for impressing your friends? Here’s an excellent textbook for beginners which makes Welsh not only a lot easier to learn, but also a lot of fun!
So, in the spirit of the day, let me leave you with that great slogan that’s the Welsh equivalent to the Irish ‘Erin go bragh’ and the Scottish ‘Alba gu brath’: ‘Cymru am byth’ – Wales forever! And, once more, Dydd Gwyl Dewi Hapus – Happy St David’s Day…