Atheist author, Professor Richard Dawkins, recently congratulated the people of Wales after the 2011 census revealed that nearly a third of people living in Wales follow no religion, stating that people in Wales were ‘ahead of the rest of the UK’.
Statistics from the latest UK Census 2011, released on 11th December 2012, revealed that 32% of people in Wales consider themselves non-religious, against an overall UK figure of 25%.
The census found that 1.5% of the Welsh population were Muslims, 0.3% were Hindus or Buddhists, Sikh or Jewish took up 0.1%, and 0.4% stated other faiths. Prof. Dawkins reportedly dismissed the figures for people saying they were a Jedi Knight, or that heavy metal music was their religion.
Yet, despite these figures, I do sometimes marvel at the hypocrisy of the entire nation lavishly celebrating Saint David’s Day – a day which has its roots in Catholicism. It is all the more ironic when one considers that Wales has been a predominantly Protestant country since the Welsh Bible was published in 1588, following the Protestant Reformation; not to mention the above mentioned Census figures. Nevertheless, it did not prevent cross-party political support, when the National Assembly for Wales voted unanimously to make Saint David’s Day a Welsh public holiday in 2000, along with 87% of Welsh people supporting the call (which was ultimately rejected by former Prime Minister, Tony Blair in 2007).
My Facebook newsfeed, as predicted, is literally plastered with photos of my former school friends’ children, dressed up in rather ridiculous traditional Welsh (peasant) costumes; photos of peoples’ homemade Welshcakes; status updates exclaiming that people were making Cawl (A Welsh stew containing lamb and leeks which is traditionally consumed on St. David’s Day); ghastly gif and jpeg banners that read ‘Dydd Gwyl Dewi Sant Hapus’ (Happy St. David’s Day); all of which gives some insight into the feigned optimism that seems to span across the nation for one day every 1st March, disguising the chilling reality that depression and suicide is reportedly on the increase in Wales.
St. David’s Day is invariably celebrated in Wales, and by Welsh societies, throughout the world with dinners, parties, and Eisteddfodau (recitals and concerts). Parades take place, with food festivals, and street parties in bigger cities. Most schools traditionally have an unofficial day off, by participating in all-day school Eisteddfodau, with the main activities being recitation, singing, and traditional Welsh folk dancing. The main search page on Google.co.uk features a special St. David’s Day “Google Doodle” to commemorate the day, and despite the fact that Saint David abstained from drinking and advised others to do the same, a number of Welsh breweries make special St. David’s Day ales. British pub, J.D.Wetherspoon even run a St. David’s Day Ale Festival. Even more bizarre, is that Disney’s Mickey and Minnie adopt a Welsh identity for the Disneyland Paris St David’s Day Festival!
Do not get me wrong. I love Wales, and I am inherently proud of my Welsh-Irish heritage (Predominantly Welsh!). Wales is a beautiful country, with a rich cultural heritage – it is famously known for being the “Land of Song”, in addition to being famous for its stunning natural scenery and coastline, and its world famous rugby team. In fact, Rhossili Bay in South Wales, has been ranked 3rd Best Beach in Europe, and the Welsh always give visitors a warm welcome… If you’re not an English person visiting during rugby season! I must admit, that my ancestral roots also give me an excuse to join in with the atheist hypocrisy of celebrating a Saint, as I use the day as an excuse to make, and gastronomically demolish, a substantial number of homemade (vegan) Welshcakes.
The biggest hypocrisy of all, is that few people in Wales actually seem to know who St. David actually was, or that the day has its roots in religion. For those of you who are wondering who is this St. David chap is, and why everyone now seems to fanatically celebrate annually on 1st March, I shall explain.
Dewi Sant, or St David, is the patron saint of Wales. According to the Museum of Wales, what little is known about him is based on a Latin manuscript written by Rhigyfarch, towards the end of the 11th century.
Rhigyfarch accounts that Dewi died in the year 589. He was a scion of the royal house of Ceredigion, and founded a Celtic monastic community at Glyn Rhosyn (St. Davids) on the western headland of Pembrokeshire, at the spot where St David’s Cathedral stands today. From the 12th century onwards, Dewi’s fame spread throughout South Wales, Ireland, Brittany, and the West of England, where it is believed he founded religious centres such as Glastonbury and Croyland. He continued with a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, where he was made archbishop. 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.
According to Rhigyfarch, many ‘miracles’ have been attributed to Dewi, the most “incredible” of which, was when he caused the ground to rise underneath him, so that he could be seen and heard by all when he was preaching at the Synod of Llanddewibrefi. Now before the Christians amongst you get excited by the story of a rising floor, consider the irony that Rhigyfarch was the son of the Bishop of St David’s. It is, therefore, believed that the account was written as propaganda to establish Dewi’s superiority, and thus defend the bishopric from being taken over by Canterbury and the Normans.
In 1398, it was decided that Dewi’s feast-day was to be held by every church in the Province of Canterbury, and Saint David was recognised as a national patron saint at the height of Welsh resistance to the Normans. Although the feast of Dewi as a religious festival came to an end with the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, St. David’s Day was celebrated by Welsh diaspora from the late Middle Ages., and became a national festival during the 18th century.
Interestingly, however, the 17th-century diarist Samuel Pepys noted how the Welsh St. David’s Day celebrations in London would spark wider counter celebrations amongst their English neighbours. Life-sized effigies of Welshmen were reported to have been symbolically lynched; and according to Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud in the Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore, the custom had arisen in the 18th century of confectioners producing “taffies”, which were gingerbread figures baked in the shape of a Welshman riding a goat— on Saint David’s Day. This perhaps gives us some further insight into the rivalry between the Welsh and English, which unfortunately, still exists to a lesser extent today.
Previous resistance to England can be seen in the poem Armes Prydain, composed in the early to mid-tenth century AD, in which an anonymous author prophesies that the Welsh people will unite and join an alliance of fellow-Celts to repel the Anglo-Saxons, under the banner of Saint David: A lluman glân Dewi a ddyrchafant (And they will raise the pure banner of Dewi).
Now, I must facetiously bid my English readers, “twll dîn pob sais”, as I hypocritically devour my Welshcakes – cakes which were once traditionally baked on a cast iron griddle for hungry Welsh Coal Miners (along with a staple diet of Cawl, and a type of meatball called Faggots). The Welsh peoples’ love of Welshcakes is something neither the English (or the rest of the world) will ever quite understand. I suppose one could describe it as the Welsh equivalent of the English’s penchant for scones with jam and cream.
Happy Saint David’s Day everyone! (Dydd Gŵyl Dewi Sant Hapus pawb!)