Rehabilitating St George’s day

Cartoon illustrating the potentially divisive nature of traditional holy days.

On 23 April 2014 the BBC released this article about what it would take for the English to celebrate St George’s Day, with ideas from making the day into a bank holiday to celebrating English ales just as fervently as the Irish celebrate their national drink on St Patrick’s Day and the German’s enjoy Oktoberfest.

What you see on the internet today:

A very unrepresentative selection of the people I follow on Twitter who are proud to show their support for St George’s Day. Isn’t that interesting, if not surprising?

And one I don’t follow:

In England there has been a lack of interest in celebrating the saint’s day for several hundred years. It is interesting that this year Google has put more into remembering St George’s Day than the BBC website, rather than another famous man’s birthday.

As shown above, the national teams, their players and their supporters are the only widely accepted group able to show any national pride. Tweets celebrating national pride, something these teams and players do every time they play appears strange when it comes to the one day that national pride should be celebrated by all English. They usually only on specific match days, or competitions like the Olympic or Commonwealth Games. Doing anything more than that has been hijacked in the public consciousness by the right-wing nationalist movements. Or it can backfire entirely:

This advert for the English nation football team apparently caused uproar for being “too warlike” and representing the crucifixion of Christ.

Anyway, who was he?

St George is the patron saint of England and has a huge number of other patronages including Georgia, Portugal and Romani people in Eastern Europe. He was a Roman Christian who served the Emperor Diocletian in his personal Guard. When he refused to follow the Emperor’s 24 February 303 AD edict that all Christian soldiers should convert to the Roman gods, he was arrested, tortured and executed. Sadly the stories about the dragon came over 700 years later, but they are pretty cool, right?!

The feast of St George is celebrated annually on 23 April within the Julian calendar of the Roman Catholic Church which has stayed in different Christian calendars, although currently it is 6 May in the Gregorian calendar.

What’s the problem?

Recruitment poster displayed in England during WW1, relying on the knowledge of St George as a representation of Englishness and martial pride.

England hasn’t really needed a truly “English” identity since the 1590s with the fear of Spanish invasion. Since that point and with the unification of the Scottish and English crowns in 1603, the idea of “English-ness” was out-moded, would have alienated the Scots, and did not take into account a slow increase in the feeling of British-ness over the decades. Nonetheless, the story of St George and the dragon has remained in the public consiousness as a parable of that “Englishness”.

I don’t think the English can easily reclaim a day that once rivalled celebrations of Christmas, especially with UKIP redoubling efforts in their manifesto for a St George’s Day bank holiday. There is no willingness to try from the main political parties due to a fear of the nationalist movements of England, Scotland and Wales and their responses, but there is a disappointment among those who want to claim the day for a day similar to that of St Patrick’s Day or Oktoberfest — to celebrate English values (and beer).

Finally, without a bombastic American celebration like their St Patrick’s Day revelry, would it ever get off the ground? I suspect that until the Scots vote for independence and celebrate St Andrew’s Day to it’s fullest extent and perhaps the Welsh celebrate St David’s Day even more, St George’s Day will never be widely celebrated.

Or we could just accept that 23 April is traditionally William Shakespeare’s birthday and actually his day of death, and celebrate him instead? It’s far less contentious!


Originally published on 23 April 2015 at www.dcxiii.com.