Sunday, 1 March 2009

Saint David's Day

For anyone who doesn't know I'm from Wales (a country in the UK, if you're wondering, lol).

The first of March is Saint David's Day, and Saint David is the patron saint of Wales, so I thought I would share a bit about the country and the Saint David's traditions with you. (Okay, I admit, some of it is copy and pasted, lol.)

Who was St. David, & why is he so important to the Welsh? And just how is St. David's Day celebrated in Wales today?

St David's Day is celebrated in Wales on 1 March, in honour of Dewi Sant or St David, the patron saint of Wales. Little is known about him for certain. What little information we have is based on an account of his life written by Rhigyfarch towards the end of the 11th century.

According to this Latin manuscript, Dewi died in the year 589. His mother was called Non, and his father, Sant, was the son of Ceredig, King of Ceredigion. After being educated in Cardiganshire, he went on pilgrimage through south Wales and the west of England, where it is said that he founded religious centres such as Glastonbury and Croyland. He even went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, where he was made archbishop.

He eventually settled at Glyn Rhosyn (St David's), in south-west Wales, where he established a very strict ascetic religious community. Many miracles have been attributed to him, the most incredible of which was performed when he was preaching at the Synod of Llanddewibrefi - he caused the ground to rise underneath him so that he could be seen and heard by all. How much truth is in this account of his life by Rhigyfarch is hard to tell. It must be considered that Rhigyfarch was the son of the Bishop of St David's, and that the Life was written as propaganda to establish Dewi's superiority and defend the bishopric from being taken over by Canterbury and the Normans.

From the 12th century onwards, Dewi's fame spread throughout South Wales and as far as Ireland and Brittany. St David's Cathedral became a popular centre of pilgrimage, particularly after Dewi was officially recognised as a Catholic saint in 1120. From this period on, he was frequently referred to in the work of medieval Welsh poets such as Iolo Goch and Lewys Glyn Cothi. In 1398, it was ordained that his feast-day was to be kept by every church in the Province of Canterbury. Though the feast of Dewi as a religious festival came to an end with the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, the day of his birth became a national festival during the18th century.

Now March 1 is celebrated by schools and cultural societies throughout Wales. It is the custom on that day to wear either a leek or a daffodil - two of our national emblems - and for young girls to wear the national costume.

National Emblems

The Red Dragon is the heraldic symbol of Wales, and is incorporated into the Welsh national flag.

According to tradition, the red dragon appeared on a crest borne by Arthur, whose father Uthr Bendragon, had seen a dragon in the sky predicting that he would be king.

The dragon as a symbol was probably introduced into Britain by the Roman legions. Medieval Welsh poets often compared their leaders to dragons in poems praising their bravery, for example, Gruffydd ab yr Ynad Coch said of Llewelyn ap Gruffudd Pen dragon, pen draig oedd arnaw ('A dragon's head he had').

Between 1485 and 1603, the dragon formed part of the arms of the Tudor dynasty, but it was replaced on the royal coat of arms with a unicorn by order of James I.

The red dragon reappeared as the royal badge for Wales in 1807, and from then on it was often seen in the regalia of Welsh patriotic societies. At the suggestion of the Gorsedd of the Bards, it was officially recognised by the Queen in 1959, and is now widely used as the national flag.

The Leek and the Daffodil

Both the sixth-century poet Taliesin and the thirteenth-century Red Book of Hergest extol the virtues of the leek, which, if eaten, encouraged good health and happiness. Small wonder, therefore, that a national respect grew around this plant, which was worn by the Welsh in the Battle of Crecy, and by 1536, when Henry VIII gave a leek to his daughter on 1 March, was already associated with St David's Day. It is possible that the green and white family colours adopted by the Tudors were taken from their liking for the leek.

In comparison with the ancient Welsh associations of the leek, the daffodil has only recently assumed a position of national importance. An increasingly popular flower during the 19th century, especially among women, its status was elevated by the Welsh-born prime minister David Lloyd George, who wore it on St David's Day and used it in ceremonies in 1911 to mark the investiture of the Prince of Wales at Caernarfon.

Welsh National Dress

The popular image of Welsh 'national' dress, of a woman in a red cloak and tall black hat, is one which largely developed during the nineteenth century. It was part of a conscious revival of Welsh culture during a period when traditional values were under threat.

The costume regarded as national dress is based on clothing worn by Welsh countrywomen during the early nineteenth century, whch was a striped flannel petticoat, worn under a flannel open-fronted bedgown, with an apron, shawl and kerchief or cap. Style of bedgown varied, with loose coat-like gowns, gowns with a fitted bodice and long skirts and also the short gown, which was very similar to a riding habit style.

The hats generally worn were the same as hats worn by men at the period. The tall 'chimney' hat did not appear until the late 1840s and seems to be based on an amalgamation of men's top hats and a form of high hat worn during the 1790-1820 period in country areas.

Lady Llanover, the wife of an ironmaster in Gwent, was very influential in encouraging the wearing of a 'national' dress, both in her own home and at eisteddfodau. She considered it important to encourage the use of the Welsh language and the wearing of an identifiable Welsh costume. She succeeded in her aim mainly because people felt that their national identity was under threat and the wearing of a national costume was one way to promote that identity.

A further influence was the work of artists producing prints for the rising tourist trade, which had the effect of popularising the idea of a typical Welsh costume, and later the work of photographers who produced thousands of postcards. This contributed to the stereotyping of one style of costume, as opposed to the various styles which were worn earlier in the century.

Shawls were the most fashionable of accessories between 1840 and 1870. The most popular were the Paisley shawls whose pattern originally came from Kashmir in India.

At first plain shawls with a woven patterned border attached were the most common. Later many fine examples with allover and border patterns were woven in Norfolk, Scotland and Paris. Shawls of the middle of the century were very large and complemented the full skirts of the period. Shawls were made in other fabrics and patterns, including Cantonese silk and fine machine lace, though it was the paisley pattern which became very popular in Wales along with home-produced woollen shawls with checked patterns.

In later years, although fashionable women no longer wore shawls, smaller shawls were still made and worn by countrywomen and working women in the towns. By the 1870s, cheaper shawls were produced by printing the designs on fine wools or cotton. Even during the early years of the twentieth century woollen, knitted and paisley shawls were widely worn in rural Wales. The paisley shawl even became accepted as part of 'Welsh' costume, though there is nothing traditionally Welsh about it at all.

One tradition of shawl wearing which is truly Welsh is the practice of carrying babies in a shawl. Illustrations showing this have survived from the late eighteenth century when Welsh women wore a simple length of cloth wrapped around their body. When shawls became popular, they were adapted to the same use, and some women even today still keep up the tradition.

And that's it.

My biggest memory of Saint David's day is dressing up in Welsh costume every year - all the schools take a photo of the children all dressed up, and the photos go in the papers.

Hope you all had a good Saint David's day!

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