All Wales that Ends Welsh: The USA’s St. David’s Holiday

St. David's Day celebrants with the traditional Welsh symbol of leek in their hat.

St. David’s Day celebrants with the traditional Welsh symbol of leek in their hat.

San Franciscans may wear flowers in their hair, but if you spot someone with a leek in their hat today, it is more than likely they’re among the small but increasingly visible number of Americans proud of their Welsh ancestry.

A map of Wales.

A map of Wales.

And if daffodils, real, paper or plastic, are covering the front of their house, you can be guaranteed they’re Welsh.

March first is the national day of Wales, celebrating Saint David, the patron of that small but clearly defined national culture within the island of Great Britain, bordered by England to its east and the Irish Sea to its west.

Mountainous, and known for its coal mining and sheep farming, Wales has its own language and its own flag.

St. David of Wales.

St. David of Wales.

It was from Cardiganshire, Wales where Dewi Sant (as he is known in the native language), set off onto his religious pilgrimages, eventually proceeding to Jerusalem.

There was named a Catholic archbishop before returning to create a religious following in the town once known as Glyn Rhosyn but renamed for him.

Legend claims that St. David’s gift for moving, eloquent speaking was so great that God would raise the very earth beneath where he stood so all in the surrounding area could hear him preach the good word.

The Welsh leeks.

The Welsh leeks.

It was Dewi Sant, so says Welsh legend, who conceived of the leek as a distinct sign of being Welsh, an idea he suggested to the native people as they prepared to defend their land against the Saxon armies.

Mary Tudor.

Mary Tudor.

By topping their caps with the green-white stalk, the Welsh would know each other. So, according to legend, the humble leek is what helped lead the Welsh to a victory of national pride.

There was evidence of the leek being worn or presented as gifts on St. David’s Day in the Tudor court of Henry VIII, with a payment of fifteen shillings being the cost to give one to Mary Tudor.

A painting showing Welsh bailiffs with leeks in their hats.

A painting showing Welsh bailiffs with leeks in their hats.

Thus, St. David’s Day is symbolized by the leek. Welsh regimental soldiers go one step further, eating a raw leek the first of March.

St. David literally remains in Wales, buried in a Pembrokeshire cathedral following his death on March 1, 589. It is the day that he died which became his feast day to the Welsh. Many claimed that twice visiting his resting place was as good a fulfillment of religious duty as making one pilgrimage to the holy city of Rome.

For the Welsh, of course, it was a lot closer than going to Italy. Truth be told, however, like all Europeans of allegedly “pure blood,” the people of Wales are derived from Italians (when the Romans invaded around the year 48), Austrians (when the original Hallstatt Celts also invaded about 1000 B.C.), Germans (when the Saxons came marching in about 550), and French (the Normans pushed through about 1000).

King Offa of Mercia.

King Offa of Mercia.

From these invasions, a Welsh culture distinct from the British began evolving, a language that was likely a Roman influence on the original “Brythonic” spoken Celt, and a united spirit result from a revolt that forced the Normans into retreat from the villages of Gwynedd, Ceredigion and Powys.

Welsh singer and harpist Siân James.

Welsh singer and harpist Siân James.

The outline of what became Wales emerged from King Offa of Mercia building a sea dyke, creating the first permanent boundary from the English. At Cardigan Castle, the first Eisteddfod (gathering of Welsh musicians and poets) took place in 1176, a custom which still continues.  Music played on a three-rowed strung harp became a distinct sound in Welsh folk music and is now even known as the “Welsh harp.”

A depiction of Owain Glyndŵr.

A depiction of Owain Glyndŵr.

By 1400 Owain Glyndŵr began a four year rebellion against England’s King Henry IV which ended with his self-crowning as the first Prince of Wales and organizing the Cynulliada (Welsh parliament) in Machynlleth. A decade later, Owain vanished, becoming part of the growing legends of Wales.

The English Tudor dynasty began with Welsh noble families in 1485, and fifty years later the Act of Union made Wales a legal part of England. Political allegiance, however, did not mean cultural alliance.

In Wales, signs are increasingly in both Welsh and English. (theguardian.com)

In Wales, signs are increasingly in both Welsh and English. (theguardian.com)

The Welsh have always been separate and distinct from the English, a consciousness bolstered by the singing of Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau, composed in 1856. Translating into Land of My Fathers, it soon became the national anthem of Wales.

Within thirty years, efforts were made to ensure that their utterly unique and most ancient of European languages would be forever protected by a newly-created Welsh Language Society and its advocacy of use in the land’s public school system.

In the last four decades there has been a an increased effort to restore uniquely Welsh cultural customs and a rising prominence of the nation. In 1977, Radio Cymru, an all-Welsh language radio station began and five years later, Sianel Pedwar Cymru, a Welsh language television station was launched and is now broadcasted internationally.

The Welsh flag.

The Welsh flag.

A massive Millennium Stadium opened enabling nearly 100,000 fans to take in the national sport of rugby. In 2005, not only France and Italy but the other nations of the British Isles – Scotland, England and Ireland – were all beat by Wales in the Six Nations Rugby Grand Slam.

Not until 1959 did Queen Elizabeth permit the Welsh flag with a red dragon to fly above government buildings in Wales. The new Welsh pride has not yet resulted in Wales becoming an entirely autonomous nation from England, but native voters approved the creation of a National Assembly for Wales in 1997, establishing Wales as a separate region ruled by its own constitution within Great Britain.

The Senedd Building where the Welsh assemby meet.

The Senedd Building where the Welsh assemby meet.

Nine years later, a Government of Wales Act did pass, which has led to a separation of the legislative and executive branches dictating the region and granted greater power to the National Assembly of Wales to enact its own laws. That same year, a new Senadd Building was completed to house the legislature.

In 1916, during World War I, David Lloyd George became the first Welshman to serve as Great Britain’s Prime Minister, a man whose first language had been Welsh, not English.

David Lloyd George, painted five years after he helped popularize the daffofil as a symbol of Wales. (wikipedia)

David Lloyd George, painted five years after he helped popularize the daffofil as a symbol of Wales. (wikipedia)

Whether it was his saying “leek” in Welsh (Cenhinen) which the British could not correctly understand or his own mispronunciation of the word, about a century ago there were increased references to it as “Cenhinen Pedr.”

In Welsh, “Cenhinen Pedr” means daffodil. And so, on purpose or by error, the daffodil emerged as the second most identifiable symbol of Wales.
Commons Speaker John Bercow, watched by Plaid Cymru MP Elfyn Llwyd, receives daffodils from Ysgol Gymraeg Llundain pupils

Commons Speaker John Bercow, watched by Plaid Cymru MP Elfyn Llwyd, receives daffodils from Ysgol Gymraeg Llundain pupils

The story goes that David Lloyd George first wore a daffodil at a 1911 ceremony for the Prince of Wales.

He wrote numerous articles advocating its visibility on March first St. David’s Day and helped popularize it.
"Daffs'n'leeks," as a St. David's Day bouquet. (Phil Ewing)

“Daffs’n’leeks,” as a St. David’s Day bouquet. (Phil Ewing)

Thus, one finds the yellow flower as visible as the green-white vegetable on St. David’s Day as the shamrock on St. Patrick’s Day.

Other Welsh legends involve the United States.
One alleges the first settlement here was led in the 1100s by Owain Gwynedd’s son Prince Madog, the first known suggestion of it appearing in a 1559 account by Welshman Humphrey Llwyd in a translation of a Welsh text Brut y Tywysogion.
Legend claims Welsh Prince Madog established the first settlement of Europeans in North America which was killed off by native people.

Legend claims Welsh Prince Madog established the first settlement of Europeans in North America which was killed off by native people.

In 1782, elderly Cherokee chief Oconostota repeated an oral tradition which was then recorded, claiming that ancient forts had once been raised by a tribe called “Welsh” who were driven out by his native ancestors. A 1799 letter recounted that six skeletons with the Welsh coat of arms had been unearthed in Indiana.

Welsh immigrants came to the American colonies and then the United States in distinctive patterns, the first being one Howell Powell to Virginia in 1642, but the colony’s politically elite landed gentry structured their society on British traditions and neither the Anglican Virginians or the Puritan New Englanders particularly welcomed non-English Britons and their non-Anglican faiths.

Charles II of England wasn't great for the Welsh.

Charles II of England wasn’t great for the Welsh.

As is so often the case, religion for the Welsh was as much about cultural pride as it was faith.

In defiance of King Henry VIII changing the British Isles from Catholic to Anglican, some powerful South Wales nobility remained loyal to the Pope and protected commoners who continued the old faith.

When pastors were ordered to cease delivering sermons in Welsh, many refused to conform. In 1660, a restored Charles II of England ordered his courts in Bala, Wales warned those who had become Quakers, Baptists and Methodists that their property would be destroyed if they did not revert to Anglicanism, their refusal to conform being seen as disloyal to the King.

Rehobeth Welsh Church in Delta, Pennsylvania the last Welsh-American house of worship still standing. (welshtraditionsproject.wordpress.com)

Rehobeth Welsh Church in Delta, Pennsylvania the last Welsh-American house of worship still standing. (welshtraditionsproject.wordpress.com)

Rather than relent, they pooled resources and purchased about 35,000 acres of land in the Pennsylvania colony, near the Delaware River and close to Philadelphia.  By 1700, almost one-third of Pennsylvania’s population of twenty thousand colonists were Welsh.

A century later came the emergence of what were called “Welsh Presbyterians,” who followed the more conservative tenets of the Methodist Church.

The Welsh-American Heritage Museum in Oak Hill, Ohio.

The Welsh-American Heritage Museum in Oak Hill, Ohio.

A Pennsylvania town was named Cambria for the town of Wales, established by religious followers of Welsh preacher Morgan John Rhys.

An 1880s Welsh quilt at the Bob Evans Museum.

An 1880s Welsh quilt at the Bob Evans Museum.

From Pennsylvania, enclaves of Welsh-American communities formed in Mechanicsville and Knoxville in Tennessee, and Canal Dover, Niles, Oak Hill, Madison, Franklin and Gloucester in Ohio. Its Jackson County was even known as “Little Wales.”

In the 1840s, a preacher by the name of King Jones from Pontrhydfendigaid, Wales bought some 5,000 acres in Wisconsin and several hundred Welsh families immigrated to the United States to settle there, forming the state’s Wales, Genesee, and Waukesha counties. From there, they migrated and settled in Illinois, and Minnesota, and Arvonia and Bala in Kansas.

Welsh quarry workers in Maryland. (welshtraditionsproject.wordpress.com)

Welsh quarry workers in Maryland. (welshtraditionsproject.wordpress.com)

A wave of Welsh immigrants came in the 19th century, using their native skills as anthracite and bituminous miners in Pennsylvania, as tinplate craftsman who made cans for food in Ohio and as slate quarrymen in Vermont and New York. In an 1832 letter, John Lewis recorded that Utica had “many Welshmen, and more than forty Welsh preachers.  Many Welsh are coming over continually.”

Still others came west to work the Gold Rush, populating the Sierra Nevada and Sacramento Valley, or herd sheep in Idaho, where Malad City boasts the largest population of Welsh outside of Wales.

Welsh immigrants who converted to Mormonism and settled in the western U.S.

Welsh immigrants who converted to Mormonism and settled in the western U.S.

Mormon missionaries were especially successful in converting the Welsh in the mid-19th century,  influencing the converted to settle in Utah.

While still small in actual immigration numbers, the Welsh came to the United States rapidly in the nineteenth century, with just 170 from 1820-1830 to over 10,000 by 1880-1890.

Skilled in the labor of metal and coal mining and furnacing, they found opportunity in coming to America.

Compared to the massive numbers of Irish, Italian, Polish and Russian immigrants who came to the United States at the turn of the last century, the Welsh were small.

This map shows the relatively small number of Americans who still identify as Welsh. (euro-americans.blogspot.com)

This map shows the relatively small number of Americans who still identify as Welsh. (euro-americans.blogspot.com)

The year of 1900 was the peak of their immigration, with a pool of approximately 200,000 first-generation Welsh already settled in the U.S.

What seems to be the case with many Americans who have some degree of Welsh ancestry is that they are likely unaware of it.

Popular Welsh surnames such as Owens, Evans, Bowen, Thomas, Powell, Gwynn, Jones, Floyd, Morgan, Thomas, Glynn, Jenkins, Cardiff, Morris, Pembroke, Davis, Prichard, Ellis are usually mistaken for English.

Like many Scots, Welsh families often found greater hope by first crossing the Irish Sea and settling in Ireland, eventually adapting to many of its customs.  There for a generation or so, they came to the United States when the potato famine and other economic hardships prompted the first massive wave of Irish immigration in the 1840s; family tradition and the records of ship passenger lists departing from mostly Cork in Ireland are reason why many Americans who believe their ancestors were Irish find they have traditionally Welsh surnames.

A Welsh-American home in Pennsylvania made with slate (welshtraditionsproject.wordpress.com)

A Welsh-American home in Pennsylvania made with slate (welshtraditionsproject.wordpress.com)

African-Americans also carry a large percentage of Welsh surnames. While some families which identify as black may carry the name of a Welsh ancestor, there is also a strong history between the two cultures, the most common bond being a sense of having shared oppression and movements to forge their own forms of faith.

Welsh immigrant women in Pennsylvania.

Welsh immigrant women in Pennsylvania.

The most common theory for why so many African-Americans have Welsh names is that they assumed surnames to honor those preachers, abolitionists, co-workers, neighbors and friends who staunchly defended their freedom.

Religious sheet music from a Welsh community in Utica, New York.

Religious sheet music from a Welsh-American composer.

The majority of Welsh immigrants settled in non-slave states. Apart from a handful of early Welsh Quakers who owned slaves, by the mid-1700s the overwhelming majority of Welsh Quakers were fighting for abolition. The small but unified community in Oshkosh, Wisconsin’s Welsh immigrants, for example, rabidly opposed the spread of slavery and supported its eventual abolition across the entire country. Welsh Quakers were also involved in the Underground Railroad.

Gouverneur Morris, Welsh-American.

Gouverneur Morris, Welsh-American.

A number of prominent Americans of Welsh descent were famously abolitionist. Financier and friend of George Washington Gouverneur Morris, whose ancestors hailed from Tintern, Walves, proposed that New York state’s 1776 constitution include an outright ban on slavery. William Lloyd Garrison, who helped found the American Anti-Slavery Society, was also of Welsh ancestry as was abolitionist Esther Morris, the first woman appointed to office in Wyoming.

While most Americans are able to distinguish the Scottish and the Irish from the English, it seems simply that they’ve rarely been exposed to anything distinctly Welsh.

Yet it is still there, without looking too far.

Idaho has a strong Welsh-American community stemming from its legacy of sheep farming.

There’s a Welsh-American newspaper, Ninnau & Y Drych, published in New Jersey and The Women’s Welsh Club of New York meet monthly. There are three different Welsh-American organizations in Chicago alone. Welsh St. David Societies may have small membership numbers but they are strong clubs and found in every region of the United States.

And whatever is Welsh in the United States converges today, on St. David’s Day.

St. David's Day in Chicago. (davidcocca.com)

St. David’s Day in Chicago. (davidcocca.com)

Chicago, Illinois is hosting a “Cawl & Cocktails” party, with a raffle, silent auction, and whiskey trifle for dessert.There are St. David’s Day dinners in Windsor, Connecticut and Sarasota, Florida, and luncheons in Pella, Iowa and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Youngstown, Ohio’s annual St. David’s Society banquet of dinner, concert, and singing is a big deal. That city has been marking the holiday for nearly a century and a quarter and is likely the nation’s oldest such Welsh-American celebration.

A Welsh American society lecture in Cleveland, Ohio.

A Welsh American society lecture in Cleveland, Ohio.

Albany, New York is hosting a lecture on ancient Welsh heroes. Emporia, Kansas is sponsoring a Welsh music concert. At Racine, Wisconsin’s Covenant Presbyterian Church will hold a special morning worship service honoring the town’s Welsh immigrants, followed by a Welsh music performance and announcement of Welsh music scholarships in – where else – Welsh Hall. In little Edwardsville, Pennsylvania there will be a polite Welsh tea with a dance performance at the Congregationalist Church. Tecwyn Jones is lecturing on differences between Welsh and Celtic culture in Minneapolis. In New York’s Carnegie Hall, there’s a concert of Welsh choral music. Rockmart, Georgia’s Welshfest will offer tours of a Welsh-American religious chapel along with Welsh desserts, the telling of Welsh children’s fairytales and, of course – barbeque.

The LA St. David's Day event.

The LA St. David’s Day event.

With the National Welsh-American Foundation being the most prominent of sponsors, Los Angeles is hosting its annual St. David’s Day Festival this year at the Cinefamily Silent Movie Theater. In that unique blending which has long been unique to life in the United States, Welsh-Americans will be gathering for the event known in Welsh as “Dydd Gwyl Dewi Sant, Los Angeles-Diwrnod Cenedlaethol Cymru,” in the heart of the Russian community along Fairfax Avenue, walking distance from the famous Farmer’s Market and the Grove.

A previous LA St. David's Day.

A previous LA St. David’s Day.

The centerpiece of Los Angeles’s St. David’s Day festival is a grand concert. A native of the Isle of Anglesey off the northern Welsh coast, the singer and composer island village Meinir Gwilym is making her American debut there, performing both traditional Welsh songs and new works.

Harpsichordist Christopher D. Lewis, a native of  Rhiwbina, Wales, is presenting a set of compositions honoring Welsh composers.

Musicians performing native Welsh music at a previous LA St. David's Day bash.

Musicians performing native Welsh music at a previous LA St. David’s Day bash.

Under the direction of Tony Davis, the Welsh Choir of Southern California will sing traditional Welsh folk and hymnal music, most of which will be presented in the native Welsh language.

It wouldn’t be a genuinely Welsh event without harp music, being offered by vocalist and harpist Aedan MacDonnell.

The 2013 St. David's Day in Los Angeles.

The 2013 St. David’s Day in Los Angeles.

Along with the concert will be a rudimentary Welsh language class, and sale of traditional Welsh crafts.

There’s also a book party for Peter Anthony Freeman’s new publication The Age of Saints: An Illustrated Guide to the Saints of Wales. Artist Kimberly Wlassak is going to be exhibiting her original art from a book of traditional Welsh and Celtic fairy tales. Numerous other Welsh-American and artists will have their works on display and for sale.

And, of course, there will be a sampling of traditional Welsh food dishes.

Welshcakes.

Welshcakes.

During the 2012 presidential campaign, the media who covered the Republican candidate Mitt Romney became familiar with a scone-like bread treat known as Welsh cakes. They were made personally by the then-First Lady-hopeful Ann Romney, whose father was a Welsh immigrant.

Cawl Cymreig, a traditional Welsh lamb and vegetable stew.

Cawl Cymreig, a traditional Welsh lamb and vegetable stew.

To Welsh-Americans, however, just as familiar is a stew known as cawl, a basic vegetable and meat dish but one which, despite the relatively small square footage of Wales, varies in taste depending on the region one samples it: coastal Welsh use fish and other seafood, those inland often employ ham and bacon, while those in the mountains invariably employ lamb and mutton.

Bara bread.

Bara bread.

There’s also the distinctive leek soup and Welsh lamb, bara brith, a fruit teacake, glamorgan sausages, and perhaps the most familiar one of Welsh Rarebit, toast with baked cheese, which has been around since 1542.

Welsh rarebit.

Welsh rarebit.

Yes, those Americans who identify as Welsh are less than one percent of the population. Sure, St. David’s Day is no St. Patrick’s Day, scones are less greasy than Welsh cakes and no hip-hop music has yet integrated a Welsh harp.

Considering the known number of public figures who had some ancestors come to the United States from Wales, however, we’ve all done well by the, well, Welsh:

Hillary Rodham Clinton. (AP)

Hillary Rodham Clinton. (AP)

Five Presidents (Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Abraham Lincoln, Calvin Coolidge), Johnny Depp, four First Ladies (Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, Rachel Jackson and Hillary Clinton), Reese Witherspoon, four signers of the Declaration of Independence (Francis Lewis, Button Gwinnett, Lewis Morris and Robert Morris), Bette Davis, Daniel Boone, Tom Cruise, Daniel Webster, James Dean, Jack London, Kelly Clarkson, labor leader John L. Lewis, Harold Lloyd, Vanessa Williams, Frank Lloyd Wright, Myrna Loy, Michael Phelps, Rob Lowe, Senator Patty Murray, Ray Milland, Elihu Yale, Jack Nicholson, Howard Hughes,

Hillary Rodham with her Welsh grandmother Hannah Jones Rodham and immigrant English grandfather Hugh Rodham, Sr.

Hillary Rodham with her Welsh grandmother Hannah Jones Rodham and immigrant English grandfather Hugh Rodham, Sr.

And the list does go on, much like the name of a town in Wales.

Jefferson's paternal ancestors are believed to have immigrated from nearn Wales's Mount Snowden.

Jefferson’s paternal ancestors are believed to have immigrated from near Wales’s Mount Snowden.

There’s also D. W. Griffith, Taylor Swift, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Christina Applegate, J. P. Morgan, Bruce Willis, Charles Evans Hughes, John and Anjelica Huston, Jefferson Davis, Betty White, Ogden Nash, Matt Bomer, Bradley Manning, Juliette Lewis, Sinclair Lewis,  Seth MacFarlane, Jack Daniels, Quincy Jones, Meriwether Lewis, Brad Pitt, Bob Evans, Chris Pine, William Fargo, the Osmonds, Revolutionary War general Daniel Morgan, Jason Robards, Jesse James, Julia Roberts, Union Army General George Henry Thomas, Susan Sarandon, Miss America Mary Katherine Campbell, John Goodman, Liev Schreiber, Labor Secretary John Davis, Robin Williams, and Kristin Chenoweth.

And for good measure, you can even include Paris Hilton, Benedict Arnold, E. Howard Hunt and Britney Spears.

 

St. David's Day celebrants

St. David’s Day celebrants as “daffs’n’leeks.”


Categories: Diversity, Holidays, Welsh-American St. David's Day

4 replies »

  1. In The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge (1929) the former president writes of his mother: “On the side of her father, Hiram Dunlap Moor, she was of Scotch with a mixture of Welsh and English. . . She bore the name of two empresses, Victoria Josephine.”

    • Well, I’m glad you wrote that because I saw Coolidge as being identified as part-Welsh and thought, oh that must be an error – never heard that. So, I will make the correction thanks Jim.

  2. What a fabulous article. It’s nice to see Wales mentioned above that of the other UK countries England, Scotland and Ireland. Wales has a long history of Welsh inventors as well – the telephone, telegraphy, airship, vacuum tube to mention just a few. A great nation of proud people with a rich and mythical history – rarely mentioned.

    • The size of a nation, be it in land mass or population, is inconsequential in my thinking compared to the strength of distinctiveness of its people and individual culture. Fascinating to me about Wales is how Nature – in the form of the protective boundary of the Snowden mountain range – helped protect Wales from English attempts to absorb it entirely and permitted it to develop and then firmly root its own unique culture, insulated from potential influences from the north and east. I have always been strongly drawn to Wales and hope to someday visit and spend substantial time there to explore the land and experience the culture with purpose and depth. Your taking the time and making the effort to sign up and to leave a comment is the greatest kind of return I can receive for researching and writing the article. Thank you very much.

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