Welsh Dragon, daffodil, leeks, Hwyl fawr ar Dydd Gwyl Dewi

Raise a Glass (of what?) on St. David’s Day

by james w thomas

On the glorious First of March, the Welsh will toast St. David, the patron saint of Wales (and abbot of Menevia). If you’re lucky, you might raise a glass of Penderyn whisky from the foothills of the Brecon Beacons, Brains beer from Cardiff, or gwin gwyn from White Castle in Abergavenny. (They’re hard to find in America.) Or you could follow the saint’s example. He was also known as Dewi Ddyfrwr or the David the Water Drinker.  Whisky, beer, or wine would have gotten a monk thrown out of his order.

His Monastic Rule was strict. Plows must be pulled by men (giving the horses a break); only water or milk can be drunk (to avoid getting drunk); and only bread with herbs or vegetables and salt can be eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner (a high sodium diet but vegetarian). His followers had to give up meat and beer, so there was no barbecue on holidays or rugby on the weekends.  David was inspiring but not a fun guy. His monks supposedly poisoned him once because he trashed the chocolate cake for desert.

The brothers might have tried to put him off with leeks or daffodils, but that’s not why they both became vegetarian symbols of Wales as St. David is the spiritual icon. Michael Drayton, the Elizabethan poet, claimed that David ate only raw leeks while he was fasting, which could have annoyed his followers no end since his sermons would smell. The leek is related to onions and garlic.

The daffodil, though, is poisonous. The name is a variation of asphodel as in Fields of Asphodel in Hades. In Wales the flower is called St. Peter’s leek or “cenhinen Bedr”. It’s actually a narcissus, introduced by the Romans, and the name is Greek, “narkissos”, from the word “narke” or numbness, also the root of narcotic. In excess, the flower can be lethal, so do not put daffodils, or the bulbs, in the leek soup unless you want to go to Hell. Why anyone would want to eat a daffodil in the first place is a different problem.

The Romans also brought the leek to Wales, possibly during the reign of Emperor Nero in the first century. He liked leek soup because he thought it was good for his voice. He was a tenor. The modern symbolic force of leeks comes from – your choice – a king, a saint, or a comedian.  King Cadwaladr in ordered his men to wear leeks on their helmets to identify themselves from the invading Saxons. Or Saint David himself suggested the identification. In a serious fight, a floppy green vegetable dangling from your head doesn’t seem like the best of ID badges. So a comedian most likely said it.

Yellow daffodils, already loved in poetry and painting and popular Britain, were publicized by the inimitable David Lloyd George, who wore one in his lapel every March, as he did at the Investiture of the Prince of Wales in 1911. Lloyd George’s own popularity, or lack thereof, as Prime Minister kept the flower in the Welsh public’s eye. And a daffodil certainly smells better than a leek.

No matter what you drink, the whisky or the soup, remember that St. David’s Day celebrates the day he died. He was born perhaps as early as AD 500 and died in 569, or 589, or some modern historians claim it was as late as 601. He never had a driver’s license or a death certificate, so it’s hard to tell. He is still beloved by the Welsh, and partly because his name means just that. It comes from the word for “beloved” in Hebrew, “dawid”. David was, of course, the king of Israel before there even was a Wales.

Our David was a follower of Augustine, another fun guy in his younger days but a stick when he got religion. David helped him out by denouncing another Welsh preacher, Pelagius (a Latin version, possibly, of Morgan), who had his own heresy rejecting original sin and accepting goodness without divine aid. While slamming Pelagius at the Synod of Brefi, his best known miracle occurred. A white dove settled on David’s shoulder as the ground rose beneath his feet, providing better sight lines for his audience and another hill for Wales. There is no record if the bird left any mark.

So wine or water, whisky or beer, or ginger ale – Mwynhau! Enjoy St. David’s Day!