About St George’s Day
St George is the patron saint of England. We celebrate his position in history with a national day on the 23rd April each year. This is held to be the day of his death in 303 AD. This is not an official holiday, so we don’t get the day off, unfortunately! Other countries around the world also recognise St George and many have their own day dedicated to him as he is considered to be one of the most venerated saints in many religions.
The history of St George
We don’t know the exact birth date for St George, although people think he was born in around 275 AD in Palestine. He was a Roman soldier; however, he came from a Christian family. George’s father had also served in the army and was respected by the Emperor at the time, Diocletian. George rose through the ranks quite quickly and became a tribune. However, in around 302 AD he ran into religious problems.
At this time, the Emperor decreed that all soldiers in the army who were Christians should be arrested. All non-Christian soldiers were expected to show their loyalty to the Roman Gods by making a sacrifice. George didn’t agree with any of this and made his objections clear to the Emperor. He then publicly declared his Christianity and refused to follow the Emperor’s instructions, leaving Diocletian in a tricky situation.
George’s family connection and military record meant that Diocletian tried hard to convert him. He offered him land, slaves and money if he would just make the necessary sacrifice. George refused and his insubordination left the Emperor with no choice but to order his execution. He was tortured, brought to the point of death and then resuscitated three times, and was then beheaded at Nicomedia. He soon became a figurehead for Christians and was declared a martyr.
It is thought that the earliest formal connection with St George in England happened in the times of Alfred the Great and the Venerable Bede. He did not become the patron saint of the country until the 14th century, vying for the position with Edward the Confessor. By the time the Reformation came round in the 1500s, official rules were set out stating that the only banner of a saint that could be displayed in the country was that of St George. The English flag with a red cross on a white background is still known as the St George’s Cross.
St George and the dragon
Although St George is venerated for his Christian martyrdom all over the world, we tend to remember him best through the legend of George and the dragon. We probably got this myth from the Crusaders who adopted George as a hero, although foreign versions may have existed before that period.
The story takes place in Libya in a town that was terrorised by a dragon. Local people fed it two sheep a day to try to keep it happy, but when this was not enough, they started feeding it their children. Children were chosen by a lottery and, one day, the king’s daughter’s name was picked out. The king offered his people all of his wealth and half his kingdom if they agreed to save her, but they would not do this.
As she approached the dragon, St George came along by chance. She warned him to stay away to protect himself, but George would not leave. Making the sign of the cross, George allegedly charged at the dragon and gave it a serious wound with his lance. They took the dragon back to the town. George told the people that he would kill the dragon if they all agreed to convert to Christianity and to be baptised. They did this and he killed the dragon for them.
St George’s Day celebrations
English celebrations on this day may tend to be religious now, remembering St George as a Christian martyr. This was a more important day historically than for many of us now. By the early 15th century, St George’s Day was one of the most important feast days in the country. It is said by some historians that it was as important as Christmas.
The union between England and Scotland may have contributed to the day becoming less important and by the 18th century, it was less common to celebrate it. You can still find some events around the country on the 23rd of April, however, and some people are still lobbying to have the day declared a public holiday.
Older traditions on St George’s Day included wearing a red rose, though this is not common practice nowadays. You’ll usually notice that many pubs will fly the St George’s Cross on this day. Basically, people who do celebrate will usually do something that is associated with English traditions. This might involve having a traditional English tea, to Morris Dancing and Punch and Judy shows. If you’re lucky, you’ll see a re-enactment of St George’s famous fight with that dragon!
Some towns still run formal celebrations. For example, Birmingham has a festival each year with traditional English foods, games and rides. English Heritage often runs festivals on its sites and in its houses. The best known may be the festival at Wrest Park in Bedfordshire. This usually happens over a weekend close to St George’s Day and includes a range of English activities and entertainment.