The Festival of the Virgin of Guadeloupe

The Virgin Mary is the patron saint of Mexico. The story says that she appeared three times in December 1531 to a poor man by the name of Juan Diego. Each time, she told him to tell the bishop to build a church on that spot.

After the first two appearances the bishop didn’t believe the story, but after the third time a rose bush grew on the spot where she had appeared, and her image could be seen on Juan Diego’s cloak. After that, the bishop believed him and the church, the Basilica de Guadeloupe, was built.

The festival of the Virgin of Guadeloupe begins the Christmas celebrations in Mexico. It   lasts for nine Days, from 3rd to 12th December and pilgrimages are made to the church during this time. On the 11th December there are fireworks and light displays and people dance until the following morning which is her feast day.

Saint Andrew’s Day

November 30th is the feast day of Saint Andrew, best known in the UK as the patron saint of Scotland.  It marks the first of a series of Scottish winter celebrations, which continues with Christmas, Hogmanay and Burns Night.

Like other festivals in Scotland, St Andrew’s day is marked by a celebration of Scottish culture – traditional food, music and dance.  The very sociable Ceilidh dancing is popular, with large events being held around St Andrew’s Day in major Scottish cities, especially Edinburgh and Glasgow.

While the day has been celebrated by Scottish people for many years, in recent times it has taken on a more official status, largely due to the increased political autonomy that Scotland has enjoyed with its devolved government.  The day has officially been a public holiday in Scotland for ten years.  In 2002, the Scottish parliament passed a law stating that all public and government buildings would fly the flag of Saint Andrew (known as the saltire) on 30th November, and this has become a very noticeable element of the way the date is marked.  One notable (and controversial) exception to this rule is Edinburgh Castle, which continues to fly the Union Jack due to it being the base for a detachment of the British Army.

Like most patron saints, the links between Saint Andrew and Scotland are rather complex.  The saint himself is one of the twelve disciples of Jesus named in the New Testament, and according to legend subsequently preached the Christian message in South Eastern Europe.  He is said to have founded the first cathedral in Byzantium (modern day Istanbul) and also preached throughout Ukraine, Romania and Southern Russia (he is the patron saint of all of these countries).  Legends state that he was martyred for his Christian beliefs in the city of Patras, Greece, where he is said to have been crucified on an X-shaped cross.  Traditionally, it is believed that he insisted on this as he felt himself unworthy to be executed on the same type of cross as Jesus (although this tradition did not really become established until several centuries later).  The shape of that cross (saltire) became the symbol of Saint Andrew, which is why it is used on the flags of countries that have him as their patron, including Scotland.  According to legend, his bones were collected after death as relics by a local monk and he set out to take them to “the ends of the world” to protect them.  Sailing West towards the edge of the known world, he was shipwrecked off the coast of Scotland and the relics were brought ashore and kept at the town that now bears the name Saint Andrews.  Another tradition says that the relics of Saint Andrew were actually brought to Scotland by a bishop who was a keen collector of relics.  However it happened, it is almost certain that bones believed to be the saint’s relics did reach Scotland, and are still kept at Saint Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh.  Veneration of such an important saint began soon afterwards.  In 832 AD, a Scottish leader by the name of Oengus II was set to fight a battle against the Angles.  The night before, he prayed to the saint and promised that if he won he would designate Saint Andrew as Scotland’s patron saint.  The following morning, pure white clouds were said to have appeared in the shape of an X in the blue sky and, despite being heavily outnumbered, Oengus’s army was victorious.  As promised, he named Saint Andrew patron saint, and the white X-shaped cross on a blue background has been the flag of Scotland since that day.

Like many biblical and early Christian figures, the life of Saint Andrew is shrouded in legend and conflicting traditions.  But regardless of actual historical events, there is no doubt that the name of Saint Andrew and, especially, the saltire flag have been an important part of Scotland’s national identity for many centuries.  It is fitting that his feast day on 30th November will be a time when Scots can celebrate their cultural traditions and proudly fly the flag.

This was a guest post from my amazing husband, Ian Braisby, Blue Badge Tourist Guide

Related posts: St David’s Day    St George’s Day    St Patrick’s Day

St David’s Day

Every year on 1st March, Wales celebrates its patron saint.  The date marks the day on which St David was said to have died.  But who was St David, why did he become the patron saint of Wales, and how is his day celebrated?

Unlike many saints, whose lives are recorded mainly in legends, St. David was a real, specific person and there are relatively good medieval records of his life.

When he was born is uncertain, with suggested years ranging from 462 to 512 AD depending on the source you read, and various dates given.  However, almost all the documents about St David state that he died on 1st March, although there is debate over the year, with some chronicles recording that he lived to be over 100 years old. Because so many stories said he died on a Tuesday, the year most often suggested is 589, as it is within the range of years in question and 1st March fell on a Tuesday in that year.  While the year may not be certain, the date is something the medieval writers largely agree on, which is why it was taken as the feast day.

St David (or Dewi Sant, as he is known in the Welsh language) was born into an aristocratic family in South West Wales, which meant he received a good education in a local monastery.  The Christian religion played a major part in his upbringing; in fact both his mother (Non) and his teacher (Paulinus) were also venerated as saints.  As an adult, he established a reputation as a preacher and teacher, helping to spread Christianity to pagan tribes in remote areas of Western Britain.  He travelled widely in Wales, South West England and Brittany, with legends also suggesting that he visited both Rome and Jerusalem.  One of the most famous miracles associated with St David is that he was preaching to a large crowd and the ground he was standing on rose up to become a hill, allowing people to see him and hear his message more clearly.

St David is best known for establishing new monasteries in the areas he visited to continue his teaching on a permanent basis, and is said to have founded more than 10 monasteries altogether.  The most important was set up in the area of his birth, in a valley close to the Pembrokeshire coast, and this became his permanent base.  The modern city of St David’s (the smallest city in Britain) and its beautiful cathedral are on the site of that monastery.  As his reputation spread, David was appointed as a bishop, and subsequently became Archbishop of Wales.

David was known for being an extremely spiritual man, who inspired his followers to lead a simple life.  The rules he established for his monks were very strict, even compared to other monastic communities.  Monks had to give up all property (even saying “my book” was considered an offence in this community), spend lots of time in prayer and study, and were forbidden from speaking except for prayer and in emergencies.  They also had to work hard, particularly labouring in the fields around their monastery.  They were not allowed to use animals for power, which meant the men had to pull the ploughs themselves!  Their diet consisted of vegetables and bread, with water and milk to drink.  In terms of his teaching, St David became best known for his “last message” – which was said to have been part of his final sermon before his death.  This encouraged people to “do the little things” – a phrase that became a popular saying in Wales – and to follow his example of a simple life based on prayer, study and hard work.

David was buried in his own cathedral and his tomb soon became a popular place of pilgrimage for Christians who were inspired by his life and teachings.  He was declared a saint in the 11th Century and – unlike many Celtic saints from the same period – is officially recognised by the Roman Catholic church.  The shrine of St David was so important that four pilgrimages to it were considered the equivalent of two to Rome or one to Jerusalem.

St David became established as the national saint of Wales around the 12th Century.  His name was used by writers at that time as a symbol of Welsh identity as the region struggled to resist invasion by the Norman rulers of England.  This status was confirmed in later centuries by him being declared the official patron saint, and his feast day of 1st March has been celebrated as a national day in Wales since the 18th Century.

Although it is not a public holiday – the last attempt to have it named as one was rejected by the UK Parliament a few years ago, despite huge popular support in Wales – the day is marked with many celebrations in Wales and among Welsh people the world over.  Festivities tend to focus on celebrating Welsh identity and culture, rather than specifically being related to the saint himself.  Many villages and towns in Wales have parades, with buildings decorated and people wearing traditional costumes, or Welsh symbols such as the leek or daffodil.  Many schools hold an Eisteddfod, a festival of Welsh-language poetry and music.  To mark the day, the flag of St David (a golden cross on a black background) will often be flown in addition to the national flag of Wales (the more familiar red dragon).

Generally speaking, St David’s Day celebrations are limited to Wales and Welsh communities – the day has not become a more mainstream event as is the case with St Patrick’s Day, for example.  Perhaps the lower-key nature of the day is fitting for a saint who was known for promoting a simple life and who helped to establish a tradition of Christianity and teaching in Wales that continues to this day.

Many thanks to Ian Braisby, Blue Badge Guide, for this post.

Related posts:    St Andrew   St George,    St Patrick

St George’s Day

“Cry God for Harry, England and Saint George!”
William Shakespeare, Henry V

When the name of St George is mentioned in Britain these days, our thoughts turn to English patriotism, as summed up in Shakespeare’s rousing conclusion to King Henry V’s famous speech, given before he leads out his men to victory over the French army at Agincourt.

On 23rd April every year, we celebrate the feast day of England’s patron saint.  But who was he, and how does he come to be a symbol of England? Did he really slay a dragon?  And why is our national day not a public holiday and an occasion for mass public celebration like those of the other countries of the British Isles?

Let’s start with what we know of the man himself.  According to tradition, he was born to wealthy parents in Roman-ruled Palestine, and lived in the late 3rd and early 4th centuries. Following in his father’s footsteps, he became a senior officer in the Roman army and a favourite of the Emperor, Diocletian.  However, he was raised as a Christian and spoke out against Roman persecution of the emerging religion, refusing to carry out acts of violence against fellow Christians.  He publicly declared his faith in a face-to-face confrontation with the Emperor, who offered him land, money and titles to renounce his faith.  As a result, he was imprisoned, tortured and eventually executed by beheading.  He came to be venerated as a martyr in the Eastern Orthodox church over subsequent centuries.  When Western European crusaders were fighting in the Holy Land a thousand years ago, this figure of a brave, Christian soldier led to the saint being adopted by many knights, who brought George and his legends back to the West.

So what about that dragon?  Slaying mythical beasts, particularly dragons, is something that crops up a lot in legends, and is very often a metaphor for fighting against seemingly overwhelming odds, defying the political powers that are in place, and for battling against and triumphing over evil.  St George’s military background, defence of his faith and refusal to submit to Roman authority fit all of these criteria, and it is perhaps no surprise that dragon slaying was added to the legends that were built up around him, and popularised in the West by chroniclers who had accompanied the Crusades.

St. George is not England’s original patron saint.  Several other figures, including Saxon kings Edmund the Martyr and Edward the Confessor, had been viewed as the most important “national” saints in the medieval period.  It is down to later kings that St George overtook them.  Himself a famous crusader, Edward I had his armies fighting the Welsh under the banner of St George and the saint became a symbol of English royal strength (especially in military terms).  This was continued by Edward III, who made St George the patron of his new Order of the Garter, the highest order of chivalry in England, and Henry V whose devotion to St George was not just a figment of Shakespeare’s imagination.  The outstanding military victories achieved by these successive kings helped to turn the saint from a royal saint to a national one.  As well as being patron saint of England, he has that distinction for various other countries – including Ukraine, Portugal and Georgia although the latter, despite many claims to the contrary, is not named after him.

The flag of St George, a red cross on a white background, was a widely used symbol at the time of the crusades and became associated with St George when groups of knights adopted him as their patron (in other words, the flag was assigned to the saint and has no link to him in terms of the original legends).  The flag became part of the insignia of the kings of England and, after the split from the Roman Catholic church, was the only saint’s banner permitted to be used in English churches – thus cementing its position as a symbol of English identity and independence.  When the United Kingdom was established as a political union, the cross of St George represented England (and Wales) in the new Union Flag.

Despite a long history as patron saint, St George’s feast day has never been celebrated as a major holiday in England.  This contrasts with his counterparts in Wales (St David), Scotland (St Andrew) and, especially, Ireland (St Patrick).  These days, many towns and cities do have “St George’s Day” events, but these generally take place on the closest weekend to the actual day.  It is not a public holiday, despite limited but growing calls for it to be declared as one.  The reasons why the English patron saint’s feast is celebrated to a lesser extent probably lies in England’s political dominance of its neighbours.  In their cases, local traditions and symbols were very important as representations of their continuing independent spirit and culture despite being politically ruled by England.  There was no need for this to happen in England and so it never really did.  In recent years, greater political self-determination in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland and ongoing debates over the future of the United Kingdom as a political entity have led to a growing search for a distinctly “English” – as opposed to British – identity.  This has manifested itself in a growing number of St George’s Day events, and increasing use of the flag as a national symbol (helped by its association with sports teams, notably the England football team – witness the number of flags on cars and in windows around the time of the major international tournaments).  However, this has not been without controversy as the flag also has very negative connotations through its use by football hooligans and extreme right-wing political parties.  There have been concerted efforts to “reclaim” the flag, as part of a wider move to establish a positive and inclusive English identity for the future.

So when we see those flags flying today, and no doubt during the forthcoming World Cup, we are witnessing the latest chapter in a centuries-old story that moves from the Roman army, to the Crusades, to the Reformation to modern England.  And even if there wasn’t really a dragon involved, that’s a pretty impressive story.

This is a guest post from Ian Braisby, Blue Badge Tourist Guide.

Related posts: St Andrew’s DaySt David’s DaySt Patrick’s Day

St Patrick’s Day

Tomorrow is St Patrick’s Day, and here with a post about the day and why we celebrate it, is my lovely husband Ian, who works as a Blue Badge Tourist Guide.

Around the world, 17th March is one of the year’s biggest celebrations, and it’s all thanks to the Irish.  The day is their most important national festival and it’s a time for everyone (Irish or not) to dress in green, get together, sing, dance and, of course, enjoy a pint of Guinness.  But although the modern celebration is known as a huge party with everyone invited, its origins, as the name suggests, are religious.  It is the traditional feast day of Ireland’s Patron Saint and for centuries was a day of prayer and contemplation.

So who was St Patrick and why was he important?  Like many early saints, his origins are somewhat obscure and clouded in legend, but it is generally accepted that Patrick lived in the 4th to 5th Centuries AD and was born in Britain, with modern Scotland the most likely location.  Most stories of his life tell us that he first went to Ireland after being captured by Irish pirates at the age of 16.  During his captivity, he became a Christian and studied to become a Priest after he escaped back to Britain.  Returning to Ireland as a missionary, he played a major part in strengthening and expanding the Christian community in the country and became one of Ireland’s first bishops.

Out of all the legends associated with him, there are two that are particularly famous.  The first is that he used the three leaves of the shamrock, a common plant in Ireland, to teach people about the Christian holy trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  The idea was one plant but three distinct leaves, just like one god with three distinct forms.  The shamrock became one of the symbols associated with Saint Patrick, and as his importance as a revered figure in Ireland grew, the emblem was adopted by the country itself, which it remains to this day.  The plant’s green colour also became recognised as the national colour of Ireland.  The second legend is more of a myth, namely that Saint Patrick banished all snakes from Ireland.  While it is true that there are no snakes native to the country, scientists are fairly certain that this was the case many thousands of years before Saint Patrick stepped ashore.  The story is more likely to symbolise his missionary work, bringing a new faith and strengthening the Christian church, banishing “primitive” beliefs and helping people feel more secure in their community.

After his death, Patrick was venerated as a Saint by Irish Christians, although this status was not officially confirmed for many centuries.  His feast day, which falls on the date of his death, was set aside to remember his life and works.  Over time, especially as Ireland became politically and culturally dominated by Britain, Saint Patrick took on a different status, as a symbol of the Irish nation and traditions, and this was really how his feast day started to become secularised as it is today.  Celebrations that we recognise today – parades, festivals of music and dance, wearing the shamrock symbol – increasingly established themselves.

These days, the day is essentially about celebrating Irish identity, and has been strengthened as Irish people have migrated throughout the world, taking their culture, traditions and festivals with them.  While Dublin has the largest St Patrick’s Day festivities in the world, next come New York and Birmingham, as Irish immigrant communities everywhere have ensured that the day is marked in style.  It is not a public holiday, so the major events generally take place on the closest weekend to 17th March.  Cynics might say the date has become little more than a marketing tool for Guinness and other Irish drinks manufacturers, but there is no doubting the joy and pride that is so obviously on display wherever Saint Patrick’s Day is celebrated. And the best thing of all – you don’t have to be Irish to enjoy it.

Related posts: St Andrew’s Day,   St David’s Day,   St George’s Day