Custom survived: Wearing a leek on St David’s Day

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“Your grandfather of famous memory, an’t please your majesty, and your great uncle Edward the plack prince of Wales, as I have read in the chronicles, fought a most prave pattle here in France.

” K. Hen. They did, Fluellin.

“Flu. Your majesty says very true : if your majesty is remembered of it, the Welshmen did goot service in a garden where leeks did grow, wearing leeks in their Monmouth caps; which, your majesty knows, to this hour is an honour­able padge of the service; and I do believe your majesty takes no scorn to wear the leek upon Saint Tavy’s day.”

Henry V., act iv. sc. 7.

There are a number of plants associated with saint’s day- Shamrocks with St Patrick and Daffodils and Leeks with St David’s. Whilst Daffodils are easy to explain as they flower around the day and are native to the principality – Leeks are slightly more confusing.

T. F. Thistleton 1875 Dwyer British Popular customs present and past

“Various attempts have been made to account for the custom of wearing the leek. Owen, in his Cambrian Biography (1803), considers it to have originated from the custom of eymlwriha, or the neighbourly aid practised among farmers. He says that it was once customary in some districts of South Wales for all the neighbours of a small farmer without means to appoint a day, when they all met together for the purpose of ploughing his land, or rendering him any service in their power. On such an occasion each individual carried with him his portion of leeks to be used in making the pottage for the company.”

However to refer back to the Shakespeare quote Hone’s Every Day book records that the practice took its rise in consequence of a victory obtained by Cadwallo over the Saxons on the 1st of March, 640, when . the Welsh, to distinguish themselves, wore leeks in their hats.

Thistleton-Dwyer (1875) notes that:

“A contributor to a periodical work, entitled Gazette of Fashion (March 9th, 1822), rejects the notion that wearing leeks on St. David’s Day originated at the battle between the Saxons and the Welsh in the sixth century ; and considers it more probable that leeks were a Druidic symbol employed in honour of the British Ceudven, or Ceres. In which hypo­thesis he thinks there is nothing strained in presuming that the Druids were a branch of the Phoenician priesthood. Both were addicted to oak worship ; and during the funereal rites of Adonis at Byblos, leeks and onions were exhibited in ” pots with other vegetables, and called the gardens of that deity.”

T. F. Thistleton 1875 British Popular customs present and past records an extract from the Graphic (No. 171, March, 8th, 1873), shows how St. David’s Day is observed by the officers and men of this regiment:

“The drum-major, as well as every man in the regiment, wears a leek in his busby; the goat is dressed with rosettes and ribbons of red and blue.”

And as such the custom survives in its military guise although Prince Charles always wears one and some Welsh druids do on the allotted day. Elsewhere people have moved from leek to daffodil – a trend started by David Lloyd George – probably due to the antisocial associations of a smelly plant attached to one’s clothing. However, a revival could be in the offing as noted by 2020 Daily Post article by Andrew Forgrave Call for wearing Leeks on St. David’s Day to make a comeback. In it the author states:

“Not surprisingly, the British Leek Growers Association (BLGA) would like to see a renaissance.

“Wearing a leek on St David’s Day is a long standing tradition,” said BLGA chairman Stewart Aspinall.

“Welsh regiments continue to celebrate Wales’ national day by wearing a leek in their cap badges

“In recent years it’s fallen out of favour amongst the wider population but we’d hope to see a revival as it’s a celebration of Wales’s national heritage.”

Will it see a full revival perhaps like the artificial daffodils made for cancer charities in a non-smelly symbolic type?

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