Every 21 October in the British Virgin Islands is a public holiday known as Saint Ursula’s Day. The day celebrates the discovery and naming of the Virgin Islands by Christopher Columbus. He called them “Saint Ursula and Her 11,000 Virgins.”
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It is easy to see why the name was shortened, but only the long form reveals the national connection to the name of Saint Ursula. Additionally, the British Virgin Islands’ territorial crest contains representations of Saint Ursula and the lamps held by her numerous virgins.
The legend of Saint Ursula involves the daughter of the king of Cornwall, in modern Britain. She took a vow to remain a virgin forever, but a marriage was nevertheless arranged for her with Conan Meriadoc, a pagan prince of Brittany.
Ursula brought 11,000 handmaid virgins with her on the way to Brittany, but they never got there. A storm threw them “off course” to a city in Gaul. From there, Ursula and her virgins went on a long pilgrimage to Rome and other places. On the way back, the Hun intercepted the group and demanded Ursula wed a Hunnish prince. She refused, and all of them were mercilessly beheaded. Saint Cordula, one of the 11,000, managed to live long enough to write down the story.
In British Virgin Islands, Saint Ursula’s Day is an off-work day. There are religious events all over the islands, and there is also a popular boat race.