England celebrates dragon-slaying patron saint
Today is the feast day of St George, patron saint of England. Parties will be held around the country to mark the occasion – but a quarter of all Britons associate St George with racism, or worse.
The Scots celebrate St Andrew’s day with bagpipes and haggis. The Welsh mark St David’s day with concerts, leeks and bunches of daffodils. And when St Patrick’s day comes round on March 17th, the parties last all night across half the world, as anyone with even a drop of Irish blood dresses up in their green finery to parade through the streets.
But today is St George’s day – a much more sober affair. Londoners may notice some goings on in Trafalgar Square; dads in Gloucester will be wearing red roses in honour of the occasion, but most people will let the day pass uncelebrated. Unlike the smaller nations in the United Kingdom, England does not even give its citizens the day off.
Official luke-warmness about St George’s day is mirrored by the general public. The English have a reputation for being the least patriotic people in Europe. And, in a survey published this morning, fully a quarter of English people said they regarded St George’s Cross – the red cross on a white background that serves as England’s national flag – as a symbol of racism, not national pride.
And while countries like the USA display their flags prominently in homes and classrooms, in England the St George’s Cross is hardly ever seen except around international football games.
In fact, the red and white cross has failed to shake off an association with the violent football hooliganism of the 1980s and 1990s. Recently, it has been making appearances at parades and marches held by a neo-fascist group called the English Defence League.
That racists should hijack George’s symbol, clerics point out, is ironic. St George himself, after all, was hardly a true Englishman. In fact, the real St George was born in Cappadocia, in what is now Turkey, some time in the 3rd Century AD. He served in the Roman army, and is also patron saint of Moscow, Georgia and Palestine, among many other places. The land in which he grew up, fought, and eventually died for his faith was every bit as diverse and multicultural as England is today.
So should the English be more proud of St George? Could the Saint not be reclaimed from extremists to become a figurehead for a new English national pride? A growing number of campaigners think St George’s day is an opportunity to celebrate what is great about England – and that it should become a national holiday to mirror the holidays of the Irish or the Scots.
But not everyone is convinced. Why should anyone celebrate one country over another, these critics ask, just because it happens to be the place where they live or were born. Cheering for a country is a meaningless as supporting a football team – and it is just as likely to lead to hooliganism.
- Is the St George Cross a racist symbol?
- Is patriotism something that should be encouraged?
- In groups, make a list of ten qualities you associate with England (rather than Britain or the UK). Are they good qualities or bad? Do the English have anything to be proud of?
- Choose a new patron saint for England. Your choice can be from any religion, or none. Make a one minute speech to your class explaining why your choice is a good one.
Some People Say...
“Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.’ Samuel Johnson, 1775”
What do you think?
Q & A
- So if I live in England, I’m missing out on an extra day’s holiday?
- Yes, although the campaign to get St George’s day off work or school is gathering pace. Wales is very likely to make St David’s day a national holiday soon. Then England would surely follow suit.
- Still, I suppose one day of holiday doesn’t matter too much either way...
- Actually, some experts calculate that a bank holiday costs the UK around £2.3 billion in lost business. But anyway, there’s more at stake than time off.
- Yes. Some people think England is unfairly treated, despite being the largest and richest country in the UK. While Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland all have their own parliaments, England does not. Scottish MPs can vote on English law, but not vice-versa.
- Most countries have a national plant or flower. Within the British Isles, Scotland has a thistle, Ireland a shamrock, England a rose and Wales the daffodil. The leek, meanwhile, is the plant sacred to St David in particular.
- Smaller nations
- The United Kingdom is made up of the three ancient nations of Wales, England and Scotland, as well as Northern Ireland. The Republic of Ireland is not part of the United Kingdom but is, confusingly, situated in the British Isles.
- English Defence League
- The English Defence League is a nationalist far-right group which has emerged as a minor political force in England in recent years. The group seeks to capitalise on anti-immigrant sentiment to make political gains.
- The real St George
- Very little is known about the real St George except that he was a soldier, who served in the Roman army during the reign of the Emperor Diocletian and that he was eventually beheaded when he refused to give up his Christian faith. The most famous story of St George, that he saved a princess from a dragon, is an earlier myth, grafted onto the life of the saint.