A change is upon us, one you can feel as much in the wind as you can by looking at a calendar. From trees full of small green buds, to longer evenings and clearer sky’s; spring has arrived. And that can only mean one thing – Dydd Gŵyl Dewi/St. David’s day is here!
So grab a bowl of cawl, a trusty dunking bap, sit back, and enjoy the festivities.
Beyond being just a metaphor for new beginnings, spring truly marks the start of everything. Before jumping into the new beginning that’s close at hand, it’s worth looking at what has come before.
On this day, nearly one and a half thousand years ago, Wales’ would-be patron saint toiled hard among his local community. He was a priest who spent his time bringing together people of all backgrounds to celebrate Welsh culture, religion, and tradition. While St Patrick might be known for the parties his patron day inspires and St George is appreciated in England for the day off work he bestows, St David has the special legacy of being the only Saint in the British isles to be of the nationality of the country that he represents. For that, he holds a special place in Welsh hearts.
Today, we have little hard evidence of David’s life. Indeed, much of what we do know comes either from canonical literature, or stories passed orally from generation to generation. Sometimes, however, it’s the stories we share as true that is as important as what is actually true – a sort of meta-truth if you will. Despite the details being hazy, what we can understand is the meaning of St David’s message for the Welsh people.
As a Celtic Bishop at Mynyw (now St. Davids), David dedicated much of his life to teaching, founding a number of religious institutions. David’s work connected much of Celtic Wales’ previously isolated rural communities to that of the Celtic communities found abroad in Scotland, Ireland, and Cornwall.
There are stories of David facing pagan chieftains, sending his men to sleep and converting them to Christianity; there are stories that sound almost comical of bees chasing a poor beekeeper who wanted to return to Ireland until St David blessed him and allowed the bees to travel with the keeper (allegedly introducing honeybees to Ireland). Unlike many other saints, his actions are taking place in his patron country – you can go to St David’s and wander the hills and valleys that he may have crossed too.
One of the most compelling parts of St David’s story comes after his death. When David died in the late 6th Century AD, he was buried in his home monastery. A century and a half later, the monastery sadly burned down – these were hard times and things are easily lost to the passing of time. But the shrine was rebuilt – the Welsh would not give up on their patron saint. The trials, however, were not to end there. Across the British isles, a new plague had hit. The Vikings had arrived. They repeatedly burned down the shrine to St David in their raiding and plundering. It mattered not because each time, the shrine was rebuilt. Throughout the medieval age, it became a place of pilgrimage; two visits to St David’s shrine was considered the spiritual equal as a pilgrimage to Rome. Three trips was considered equal to Jerusalem. Thankfully, without needing another raid to warrant renovations, the old medieval shrine was restored in 2012.
Today, it’s easy today to look around and see division. From racial and sexual discrimination to political and religious clashes, the world can sometimes be a scary place. In the face of this, it’s important to look back to times of unity to help us understand that just as there is a start to division, there is also an end.
St David represents a bridge between divides: spreading Celtic Christianity throughout much of Wales, David united many once distant local clans and communities. Zooming out, the embedding of a broader Welsh-Celtic culture helped create a sense of belonging and fellowship with our Celtic-Gaelic neighbours to the North, West, and South.
For many who come from or have been to the country, Wales can seem a strikingly Anglicised place, especially along the borders and metropolitan areas, but one only needs to go further West and North to find themselves in a land apart. Indeed, spend any time in the more rural or hard to reach towns and villages and you’ll immediately get a sense for the depth and breadth of Welsh culture.
Culture in Wales is a funny thing, you might be mistaken for thinking it goes no further than an innate desire to beat England in the Rugby (which to some extent it definitely is). But in fact it goes much deeper than simply ‘othering’ England. For Wales, culture is both national and local, spoken and unspoken. For some it’s embedded in their daily job, especially in farming communities centuries-old, while for others it’s built into every trip to the shops, every time walking along a beach, up a mountain, or through a castle. Welsh culture spans the breadth and depth of the country, and has persisted for thousands of years.
Despite a long and colourful history of Welsh cultural evolution, its country, people, and language have always been under threat from external forces.
From invading Roman and later English armies determined to colonise throughout the medieval period, to an active war on the Welsh Language throughout the 19th Century, Wales has seemingly faced complete annihilation, and yet, through it all, has always found a way to survive.
In this way, it is not just the life of St David that is symbolic of Welsh culture, it is his memory too. Welsh culture, much like St David’s shrine, has been attacked, pillaged and plundered but somehow – perhaps with Saintly protection – it has always found a way to return.
There are many things that those from other nations might look to Wales and use as inspiration. Whether it’s a sense of unity and community, or the simple ability to weather any storm. St David’s Day is a celebration of all of this. It’s a coming together of generations, friends, and family. It’s a celebration of a culture built over thousands of years by the hard work and determination of our ancestors. And most importantly, it’s a celebration of resilience, echoed most aptly in the words of Dafydd Iwan:
Ry’n ni yma o hyd – We are still here
Dydd gwyl Dewi hapus – Happy St Davids day!