Happy St Andrew's Day!
We’re celebrating St Andrew’s Day today! This is the feast day of St Andrew, who is the patron saint of Scotland, and therefore it’s also the official national day for Scotland. In Scotland, it’s celebrated with a bank holiday, though Scottish people who live in the rest of the UK still have to go to work.
Unlike Burns Night, another Scottish festival that is celebrated even by people with no connection to Scotland, St Andrew’s Day doesn’t tend to be celebrated much outside the countries where St Andrew is a patron saint, or their diaspora communities. Alongside Scotland, those include Barbados, Ukraine, Russia, Sicily, Greece, Cyprus and Romania. As one of our summer school campuses is based in the ancient and beautiful University of St Andrews, today we’re sharing a bit more about St Andrew, his feast day, and how it’s celebrated.
Who was St Andrew?
St Andrew, or Andrew the Apostle, was one of Jesus’ disciples and brother of St Peter. He was born around 6 BC in Galilee and, like his brother, was a fisherman; for that reason, he is often depicted with a fishing net. In the Gospel of St John, it’s Andrew who, at the miracle of the Feeding of the 5,000, is the one to tell Jesus about the boy who has five loaves and two fish to share. In Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, Andrew is third from the left.
After the Crucifixion, Andrew is said to have travelled widely in what is now Eastern Europe and Russia, preaching Christianity. Eventually, his journey brought him to Greece, where he is said to have been martyred by crucifixion in the city of Patras. That’s where sources differ – some early sources claim that Andrew was martyred by being bound to a Latin cross (i.e. a standard crucifix). But the story more commonly told is that Andrew refused to be martyred on the same kind of cross as Jesus, seeing himself as unworthy; as a result, he was crucified on an x-shaped cross or saltire, which is now generally known as a St Andrew’s Cross. A similar story is told of his brother Peter, who requested to be crucified upside-down so as not to be crucified in the same way as Jesus. Saints are sometimes shown with the instrument of their martyrdom, so some images of St Andrew show him holding or leaning on an x-shaped cross.
Why does he have a national day in Scotland?
It makes sense that St Andrew is the patron saint of countries such as Ukraine, Russia and Romania, which he reportedly visited, and especially Greece, where he was martyred. But he had no connection to Scotland in his lifetime.
All the same, Scotland is perhaps the place St Andrew is most strongly associated with. That’s because of the fate of his remains after his death. Like many saints, parts of Andrew’s body were preserved to make holy relics. How much these or other relics were genuinely preserved from St Andrew is unclear, but what is certainly the case is that religious believers over the centuries have held these remains to have a special importance or even power. In Andrew’s case, alongside being distributed across Greece and Italy, some relics were taken to Scotland, probably in the 8th century. They were kept in what is now the town of St Andrew, where a chapel was built to house them, and where pilgrims began to travel to see them.
But this was only the beginning of the association of St Andrew and Scotland. A pivotal moment occurred – according to legend – in 832 AD, when the Pictish king Óengus mac Fergusa faced the Angles in battle (the legend has them led by King Æthelstan, but this doesn’t match up with any of three possible King Æthelstans, who were all either born much too early or much too late to be fighting a battle in 832). Desperately outnumbered, Óengus prayed to St Andrew and was rewarded with victory, and so pledged that Andrew would be the patron saint of Scotland from then on.
What is the history of the University of St Andrews?
You might be wondering about how the university came to bear St Andrew’s name. The town in fact has a long history and prehistory; human habitation around St Andrews dates back to the Mesolithic. From the 8th century, St Andrews was the site of a monastery, which preserved the relics of St Andrew, then from 906, a bishopric was established there. In 1160, a large cathedral was built with a shrine to St Andrew, which became the most popular site for pilgrimages in Scotland. So by the time the university came to be established, the town of St Andrews was already well-known and thriving.
The University of St Andrews was founded by necessity; in the early 15th century, wars and religious disagreements kept Scottish scholars from attending the universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Paris. Instead, they set up a society of higher education in St Andrews in 1410, which became the university. The pope granted it university status in 1413, and this was confirmed by the king of Scotland in 1432 – by which time the first college had already been established.
How can I celebrate St Andrew’s Day?
This time of year is packed with festivals in Scotland – St Andrew’s Day, then Hogmanay (New Year’s Eve) and Burns Night on the 25th January. It’s worth noting that it’s very dark and cold in Scotland this time of year – on St Andrew’s Day, the town of St Andrews gets less than seven and a half hours of daylight – so festivities are a good way to get through the winter.
Of the three festivals, St Andrew’s Day is probably the one with the calmest celebrations. Traditional Scottish food will be eaten, such as haggis, neeps and tatties, salmon, Scottish game and treats like tablet and shortbread. Then there are traditional Scottish dances, especially ceilidhs. In some larger towns and cities, there are processions and other festivities, including by torchlight. Whichever way you choose to celebrate, have a wonderful day.
Image credits: Scottish flag; St Andrew; cathedral; bagpipes.