Happy St. David’s Day

It may have slipped past you this week, but people of Welsh ancestry always take note of March 1, St. David’s Day. David is as important spiritually and emotionally to the Welsh people as Patrick is to the Irish. Wales is one of the Celtic “Seven Nations,” the corners of Europe where the Celtic peoples withdrew who didn’t want to assimilate into the Roman Empire: Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Isle of Man, Brittany (in NW France), and Galicia (in NW Spain). Each of their languages is related and still spoken—by some estimates there are still over 500,000 Welsh speakers in Wales today.

March 1 commemorates the death not of Israel’s great king, but of Dewi Sant, a Welsh monk and bishop who lived from approximately A.D. 500 to 589. Like Patrick, David planted churches and monasteries in a very turbulent time—the Romans had pulled out of Britain, leaving its northern parts of the empire to fend for themselves. Towns and Christian churches near the seacoast were particularly vulnerable to attacks by Saxons and Viking raiders. You can visit some of the great Welsh stone churches and monasteries, including the great Cathedral in the town of St. Davids, on the westernmost tip of Wales. The beautiful ruins of Tintern Abbey on the River Wye might inspire you as they did William Wordsworth.

In the 1700s and 1800s, many Welsh people emigrated, quite a few to the United States. Because of their background in coal mining, they first found an agreeable place to settle in Pennsylvania’s coal regions. As in other slow-to-evolve European countries, much of the land was controlled by wealthy landowners, and individual farmers could not get ahead. Lured by stories of cheap farmland to those who would clear and settle it, some came here to Wisconsin, where they founded the township of Wales in Waukesha County; others settled in Milwaukee, where they established several Congregational churches.

The Welsh are terrific singers. A cherished annual custom is the Eisteddfod, a festival of music, poetry, and literature. Another is the Gymanfa Ganu, or hymn festival. In a Welsh church, from early on you are assigned your voice part, and congregational hymns are sung with great passion in four-part harmony. Welsh hymn tunes are known throughout the Christian world and are named for towns in Wales or Welsh phrases: RHOSYMEDRE, EBENEZER (a.k.a. TON-Y-BOTEL), ABERYSTWYTH, BRYN CALFARIA, CWM RHONDDA, AR HYD Y NOS, MALDWYN, LLANFAIR, HYFRYDOL, LLEDROD).

“To be born Welsh

   is to be born privileged—

Not with a silver spoon in your mouth,

   But with music in your blood

   and poetry in your soul.”

Pastor Mark Jeske has been bringing the Word of God to viewers of Time of Grace since the program began airing in late 2001. A Milwaukee native, Pastor Jeske has served as the senior pastor at St. Marcus, a multicultural congregation on Milwaukee’s near north side since 1980. In addition, he is the author of six books and dozens of devotional booklets on various topics.

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