Posted 19th Feb 2013
Image courtesy of St Patrick's Festival
As patriotic festivities commence this spring we find out who the saints behind the days really were
As the months of March and April dawn, many of us welcome in the first signs of spring, the start of Easter festivities and the honouring of three rather important men; St David, St Patrick and St George. We celebrate these saints in national patriotic festivities held across Wales, Ireland and England, but do we really know what or who we're celebrating?
The first of the saint days is St David's Day, celebrated in Wales on 1st March - the date the patron saint was thought to have died in 589 AD. St David, also known as Dewi Sant, was believed to have been a preacher who embarked on pilgrimages throughout Wales and England, where he is said to have founded several religious centres including a monastery in west Wales. Dewi eventually settled at Glyn Rhosyn in south-west Wales, now known as St David's, where he established a strong religious community as he helped to spread the Christian faith, eventually becoming Archbishop of Wales. Very little is actually known for sure about St David, as the manuscript written on his life by Rhygyfarch did not appear until the 11th century long after St David's death. However it is widely believed he was responsible for many great miracles, including the famous notion that he caused the ground to rise beneath him as he preached so that everyone could see and hear him clearly. His fame continued to spread throughout Wales after his death and in the year 1120 Dewi was officially recognised as a saint, though it was not until the 18th century that St David's Day was declared a national celebration in Wales.
Today St David's Day is widely commemorated as Welsh communities and schools come together to honour him with their traditions of a special annual concert, a meal of Cawl - a stew containing lamb and leeks, patriotic attire and the wearing of the iconic leek or daffodil symbol. Legend has it that people don leeks on St David's Day as Dewi Sant himself advised the Welsh to wear leeks during battle to recognise their fellow countrymen, though other stories suggest it was because the Welsh fought bravely in a field of leeks that the leek is now worn. It is suggested that the more recent custom of the daffodil is used as it blooms in spring, around St David's Day, and offers a sweeter-smelling alternative to the leek.
Across the water our Irish cousins celebrate their own patron saint, St Patrick, just over two weeks later on 17th March. St Patrick's Day is a national religious holiday in Ireland observed as such for over a thousand years, with celebrations reaching right across the world in this most patriotic of events. St Patrick's Day is widely associated with Irish culture, including all things green, gold and with shamrocks. According to legend St Patrick taught pagans about the Holy Trinity using the three leaves of the shamrock which is today recognised as a national symbol of Ireland and of St Patrick's Day. Believed to have been born in the fourth century, St Patrick's rise in heroism is most famously associated with the legend that he drove all the snakes from Ireland. In actual fact Ireland is not likely to have ever had snakes, but serpents were seen to symbolise evil and may have been used to demonstrate St Patrick's effort to overthrow pagan power.
St Patrick is also recognised for the arrival of Christianity in Ireland, for which he is largely credited. Believed to have been taken to Ireland and used as a slave at the age of sixteen, Patrick was sure he was being punished for his lack of faith and after six years herding sheep on Slemish Mountain he escaped, determined to become a priest. Several years later Patrick returned to Ireland as a missionary, bringing the message of Christ to its people and carrying out thousands of baptisms. Surprisingly St Patrick has never been officially declared a saint, or canonised, by the Catholic Church but he is nevertheless observed as a saint in title and is celebrated in a day traditionally used for spiritual renewal and prayers.
On 23rd April we recognise our English saint, St George, who was in fact not English at all. St George was born to Christian parents in the third century in Cappadocia, now Eastern Turkey, and became patron saint of not only England but also several other cities and countries including Germany, Greece and Moscow. Very little is truly known about the saint, some even claim he didn't exist at all, and much of what we have learned over the years is based on myth or legend.
Read the rest of this feature on p.104 of the March/April 2013 issue...
By Natalie Mason