St. David’s Day. Or, ‘every one a Leek upon his Head’.

1 Mar

Happy Saint David’s Day!

If you’re Welsh (or if you habitually bedeck yourself with alliums), you’ll be wearing a leek today. Here’s an early modern explanation of the practice, taken from Guy Miège’s Nouvelle Methode Pour Apprendre L’Anglois (London, 1685) – this comes from a dialogue (in English and in French) between two French emigrants. The author (M) is a Frenchman who’s been living in England for years, and is explaining the many quirks of English behaviour to his newly-arrived compatriot (C). This follows a discussion of the Valentine’s Day practice of stuffing the hatband with a rolled-up piece of paper containing the name of one’s Valentine.

I like this not just because of the curious survival of saints’ days in the service of national tradition, but also because of the lovely image it leaves us with, of Charles II with a leek in his hat.

Dydd gwyl Dewi Sant hapus!

***

‘M. But you will see a stranger Thing on S. David’s Day, the first of March. Instead of rolled Papers upon the Hat, you will see green Garden Leeks.

C. They are, I suppose, Gardeners that wear ’em, to shew their Joy to the World for the nearness of the Spring.

M. No, you han’t hit it right. Tis a kind of Trophy amongst the Welsh. Their Liberty was once hard at stake; and they must either be victorious, or lose it. In that Extremity they called upon S. David, their Patron, for Help. Armed with Confidence in that Saint, they crossed Fields sowed with Leeks, before they came to engage. Every Souldier took up a Leek, for a mark of Distinction. The Welsh got the Victory. And now, to render both the Action and the Saint immortal, they made a Law amongst themselves, that the Memory of the Thing should be transmitted to all Ages, by wearing that Day every one a Leek upon his Head. Which they do here every one inviolably. The King himself, according to the Custom of his Predecessours, do’s in Compliance of that People, wear that Day a Leek on his Hat. But his is not (you may think) a Garden-Leek. His Majesty has the same Compliance for the Scotch, and the Irish. On S. Andrew’s Day, the Patron of Scotland, the Scotch wear a blew Cross on the fore part of their Hats.The King wears one likewise. Upon S. Patrick’s Day, the Patron of Ireland, the Irish wear, in the Honour of that Saint, a red Cross on one side of their Hats. And, if you be here, you will see the King wear one.’

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