St. David’s Day 2017: Five things you need to know about Wales’s national celebration

Google Doodle depicts traditional Welsh lovespoon as country honours patron saint

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The Independent Online

Every year on March 1, the people of Wales celebrate their heritage and St. David, an occasion alluded to by today’s Google Doodle depicting a traditional Welsh lovespoon.

But what is a lovespoon and who was St. David? Here are five facts surrounding the biggest non-Six Nations day in the Welsh calendar.

1. As indicated by the Doodle, a lovespoon is a customary gift weighted with symbolism

A tradition dating from the 17th century, a Welsh lovespoon is given by talented carvers to the objects of their affection to demonstrate prowess in carpentry and none-too-subtly imply an ability to provide. 

Lovespoons are commonly decorated with hearts, anchors, horseshoes, knots and locks, with many conveying hidden emotional meaning. A spoon with an entwined stem, for instance, indicates togetherness, while a decorative Welsh dragon at the tip of the handle – as in artist Matt Jones’s Doodle – represents a protective charm.

2. St. David was a sixth century missionary and ascetic who once raised a hill from the ground

Born in Caerfai, Pembrokshire, in 500 AD to Prince Ceredig ap Cunedda and Nom, daughter of a Celtic chieftain, St. David was an early Christian missionary and archbishop who travelled to France, Ireland and the Holy Land and founded 12 monasteries. Much of David’s life is shrouded in mystery but he was once believed to be a nephew of King Arthur on his mother's side and stands today as a symbol of Welsh resistance against the Norman Conquest. He is also recognised as the patron saint of doves.

Miracles associated with David include the Synod of LLanddewi Brefi - where he raised a hill up from the ground so that his followers could better hear a sermon – restoring sight to the blind St. Paulinus and bringing a dead boy back to life with his tears. David also survived a poisoning at the hands of his own monks, who had fed him tainted bread after growing tired of the hard labour and deprivation they had suffered as a result of his extreme brand of asceticism.

He died on March 1 in 589 AD and his remains have been interred at St. David's Cathedral in Pembrokeshire since he was canonised by Pope Callixtus in 1120 (or they were, until King Edward I made off with his head and arm as holy relics in 1284). David's burial site has been a popular place of pilgrimage for centuries since and his aphorism “Gwnewch y pethau bychain” - or “do the little things” - remains a national motto to this day.

3. Soldiers mark the day by eating raw leeks

The people of Wales celebrate their national day by sporting daffodils about their person and taking part in festivities across the country, with large parades staged in Cardiff, Aberystwyth, Wrexham and Llandudno every year. Children are often dressed in traditional folk attire dating from the 18th and 19th centuries and the national hymn, “Land of our Fathers”, resounds.

Traditional Welsh dishes are also served – notably roast lamb or Rarebit – with perhaps the least appetising being raw leeks, customarily presented to Welsh regiments of the British army to devour whole in a nod to their distinctive heritage. 

Leeks were said to be worn by Welsh soldiers in battle tied to their helmets – as Fluellen does in Shakespeare’s Henry V - to distinguish themselves from Saxon invaders, although the precise origins of Wales’s association with the root vegetable remain obscure.

4. The Welsh dragon originates in Britain’s oldest myths

Aside from daffodils, leeks and Tom Jones, Wales’s most instantly recognisable symbol is the snarling red dragon emblazoned on its national flag.

This icon can be traced back to Arthurian legend and a dream experienced by the young Merlin, later to be Camelot’s court wizard and chief adviser to the king, who foresaw a battle between a red and white dragon and understood it to represent the coming of Arthur to see off the Saxon hordes. 

The myth is recorded in some of Britain’s oldest prose literature, including the Mabinogion and Historia Brittonium but became crystalised in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain in 1136.

5. It’s Tony Blair’s fault that St. David’s Day isn’t a public holiday

While St. Andrew’s Day in Scotland and St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland are national holidays, the same isn’t true for their Welsh and English equivalents.

This is because former Prime Minister Tony Blair vetoed calls for a change to the law in March 2007, despite a near-unanimous 87% of the Welsh population stating their preference for making St. David’s Day a bank holiday.

Some Welsh schools defy the status quo by giving their students a half-day, a move no doubt popular with the pupils.

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