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St. David's United Church
Who is St. David
Saint David & Saint David’s Day
If you were lucky enough to be in Wales on March the first, you would find the country in a festive mood. Everyone would be celebrating St. David’s Day in one way or another.
But who was St. David, and why is he so important to the Welsh? And just how is St. David’s Day celebrated in Wales today?
Well, Saint David, or Dewi Sant, as he is known in the Welsh language, is the patron saint of Wales. He was a Celtic monk, abbot and bishop, who lived in the sixth century. During his life, he was the archbishop of Wales, and he was one of many early saints who helped to spread Christianity among the pagan Celtic tribes of western Britain.
It isn’t clear how much of the history of Dewi’s life is legend rather than fact.
However, we can be relatively certain, that Dewi was a very gentle person who lived a frugal life. It is claimed that he ate mostly bread and herbs – probably watercress, which was widely used at the time. Despite this supposedly meager diet, it is reported that he was tall and physically strong.
Dewi is said to have been of royal lineage. His father, Sant, was the son of Ceredig, who was prince of Ceredigion, a region in South-West Wales. His mother, Non, was the daughter of a local chieftain. Legend has it that Non was also a niece of King Arthur.
Dewi was born near Capel Non (Non’s chapel) on the South-West Wales coast near the present city of Saint David. We know a little about his early life – he was educated in a monastery called Hen Fynyw, his teacher being Paulinus, a blind monk. Dewi stayed there for some years before going forth with a party of followers on his missionary travels.
Dewi travelled far on his missionary journeys through Wales, where he established several churches. He also travelled to the south and west of England and Cornwall as well as Brittany.
Dewi is sometimes known, in Welsh, as ‘Dewi Ddyfrwr’ (David the Water Drinker) and, indeed, water was an important part of his life – he is said to have drunk nothing else. Sometimes, as a self-imposed penance, he would stand up to his neck in a lake of cold water, reciting Scripture.
He founded a monastery at Glyn Rhosyn (Rose Vale) on the banks of the small river Alun where the cathedral city of St. David stands today. The monastic brotherhood that Dewi founded was very strict, the brothers having to work very hard besides praying and celebrating masses. They had to get up very early in the morning for prayers and afterwards work very hard to help maintain life at the monastery, cultivating the land and even pulling the plough.
Many crafts were followed – beekeeping, in particular, was very important. The monks had to keep themselves fed as well as the many pilgrims and travelers who needed lodgings. They also had to feed and clothe the poor and needy in their neighborhood.
There are many stories regarding Dew’s life. It is said that he once rose a youth from death, and milestones during his life were marked by the appearance of springs of water. Perhaps the most well-known story regarding Dewi’s life is said to have taken place at the Synod of Llanddewi Brefi. They were to decide whether Dewi was to be Archbishop. A great crowd gathered at the synod, and when Dewi stood up to speak, one of the congregation shouted, ‘We won’t be able to see or hear him.’ At that instant the ground rose till everyone could see and hear Dewi. Unsurprisingly, it was decided, very shortly afterwards, that Dewi would be the Archbishop.
It is claimed that Dewi lived for over 100 years, and it is generally accepted that he died in 589. His last words to his followers were in a sermon on the previous Sunday. These are said to be his last words ‘Be joyful, and keep your faith and your creed. Do the little things that you have seen me do and heard about. I will walk the path that our fathers have trod before us.’ ‘Do the little things’ (‘Gwnewch y pethau bychain’) is today a very well-known phrase in Welsh, and has proved an inspiration to many. On a Tuesday, the first of March, in the year 589, the monastery is said to have been ‘filled with angels as Christ received his soul.’
Dewi’s body was buried in the grounds of his own monastery, where the Cathedral of St. David now stands. After his death, his influence spread far and wide – first through Britain, along what was left of the Roman roads, and by sea to Cornwall and Brittany.
St. David’s Day, as celebrated today, dates back to 1120, when Dewi was canonized by Pope Callactus the Second, and March 1st was included in the Church calendar. After Dewi’s canonization, many pilgrimages were made to St. David’s, and many churches were dedicated to Dewi.
St. David was, and is, a very important figure to the Welsh. Naturally, then, St. David’s Day is a time of great celebration in Wales. Societies all over Wales celebrate with special meetings and events. In St. David’s Hall, Cardiff, each March 1st, there will be a concert featuring a 1,000 member male voice choir, specially formed for the occasion. Male voice choirs are flown to all corners of the globe on St. David’s Day, to entertain Welsh communities.
St. David’s Day at the primary school begins with a religious service in one of the chapels or churches in Carmarthen. The children go to school dressed in Welsh costumes. The girls wear a pais a betgwn – a petticoat, made of Welsh flannel, and a tall beaver hat, worn over a frilled white bonnet. The boys wear a white shirt with a jabot and wrist frills, a Welsh flannel waistcoat, black breeches, long woolen socks and black shoes. To complete the outfit they wear a flat beaver hat.
The students march through the town, led by the Mayor and town dignitaries. People gather to see them marching past. They go back to school for a bowl of cawl – or leek broth: the traditional St. David’s Day meal. After lunch they dance Welsh dances, sing Welsh folk songs and recite Welsh poems. The highlight of the day is the judging of the longest leek competition.
Well, I hope that you now have some idea of who St. David was, and why he is so important to the Welsh. Dewi’s words still ring down through the ages. So perhaps, as we go about our lives, we would be wise to remember his very last words, and to do the little things.