Earlier this week, on the 23rd April, it was St. George’s Day. Although this is known as England’s national day, it is likely to have passed without many people in the country even realising! This week, eSense Translations explores St. George’s Day, finding out the history and legend behind it and why its recognition is so limited. eSense Translations then compares St. George’s Day with the U.K.’s other three national days to discover the differences between the way they are acknowledged.
St. George’s Day
St. George is England’s patron saint. He died on the 23rd April and it is this day that has been dedicated to his recognition. St. George was actually born in Turkey in around the year 280. He was in the Roman army and was executed for being a Christian.
Legend tells us that St. George did battle with a dragon and was victorious. This was in aid of a princess, who had been made a sacrifice by local inhabitants of the town, Silene. They needed to get access to the only local water well, which the dragon was blocking. When St. George saved the princess and slayed the dragon, the people converted to Christianity to express their gratitude.
Regarding the reality of the dragon in this legend, it has been suggested that it may represent pagan traditions that included the sacrifice of humans. An alternative suggestion has proposed that the dragon may be a symbol of the devil.
Having discovered this story, the question came to mind regarding why St. George had been made the patron saint of England. What was his link to the country?
As is the case with many legends, it seems that different stories exist. One conflicting story suggests that the dragon was actually slayed in England, on the flat-topped Dragon Hill in Uffington, Berkshire, and that where the dragon’s blood trickled down, grass can no longer grow!
As noted earlier, other than St. George’s flag being flown from official buildings, the day when our patron saint is recognised goes by mainly unnoticed. In contrast, other countries have national holidays and share traditional celebrations on their saints’ day.
Many years ago, celebrations on St. George’s day were as enthusiastic as those at Christmas. However, since England unified with Scotland in 1707, these celebrations have petered out. In recent times, however, there has been a push to reignite our excitement and celebrate this day properly once again.
With this in mind, how has Scotland’s national day fared since the unification?
St. Andrew’s Day
The patron saint of Scotland is St. Andrew, with Scotland’s national day being on 30th November. This was granted in 1320, when Scotland was declared an independent nation.
St. Andrew was born on the shores of the Sea of Galilee in Bethesda and became a fisherman and disciple of Jesus, alongside his brother St. Peter. He is said to have died, martyred for his beliefs and bound to an X- shaped cross in Patras, Achea in Greece. It is this shape of the cross that has become the recognised symbol on the flag of Scotland, known as the Saltire.
Legend also provides the link between Scotland and St. Andrew and came about from the arrival of St. Andrew’s relics, including a finger bone, arm and kneecap, to the small coastal village of Kilrymont. Tales state that St. Rule was instructed by an angel to take these relics and sail west. Wherever he was shipwrecked was to be the site where he should establish a church and Kilrymont, in Scotland is said to be where he landed. Eventually, the site was renamed as St. Andrews and has since become an important site for Christian pilgrimage.
Unlike England, in Scotland, their national day is a bank holiday, however this has only been a recent introduction that was given final approval in 2007. Schools generally close, as do many businesses, but like other bank holidays, other services and shops are likely to still be open over limited hours.
Scotland does certainly take a more enthusiastic approach to its celebrations of its saint’s day. Major cities in the country have parties with musical entertainment, feasting and traditional ceilidh dancing. In Glasgow, a torchlight procession makes its way through the West End, raising money for charity in recognition of St. Andrew’s generosity. In Oban, their traditional winter festival at this time also includes whisky and haggis tasting. East Lothian’s celebrations take a slightly different angle, recognising the arts and sports, with events including a golf tournament, 10k run, and craft festival as well as musical performances.
Superstitions around finding a spouse are also practised at this time. Young women are said to be able to find signs of their potential husband by peeling an apple in a single piece and throwing it over their shoulders. The letter the shape of fallen apple peel most closely represents is claimed to be the initial of their future husband’s name.
St Patrick’s Day
Probably the most well-known saints’ day in the U.K. is St. Patrick’s Day. Despite, being the national day for Ireland and Northern Ireland, celebrations take place throughout the U.K. and even worldwide.
St. Patrick was a missionary, who grew up in Britain, but moved to Ireland in early adulthood. There, it is believed he converted many people to the Christian religion and began building churches throughout the country. He died on 17th March, approximately in the year 493, and is thought to be buried under the cathedral in Downpatrick, County Down.
The legend surrounding St. Patrick is that he was thought to have banished all snakes from Ireland. However, it has been pointed out that as there haven’t been snakes in Ireland since the Ice Age, the ‘snakes’ are instead thought to symbolise pagan worshippers of snake gods.
Like Scotland, Ireland’s national day has become a celebration of Irish culture. It is a bank holiday for those in Ireland and Northern Ireland and there are many parades, parties, traditional singing, dancing and feasting. The shamrock and all things green provide the frequent theme throughout these jubilant celebrations.
St. Patrick’s Day celebrations are by no means confined to Ireland. Cities across the U.K. with large Irish populations, such as Birmingham, Nottingham and Liverpool, take on similar celebrations too, although unfortunately for them, there is no bank holiday in England, Wales or Scotland during this time.
St. David’s Day
In Wales, their patron saint is St. David. Their national day falls on March 1st and, although it is not a bank holiday, certain celebrations do take place.
St. David is another saint who little is known about and therefore is surrounded by legends and tales. It is understood that he died in 589, living to be 100 years old and was regarded as a physically strong, yet gentle man. He travelled throughout Wales, Cornwall and Brittany, where he founded several churches and monasteries and eventually was made an archbishop. In the 12th Century, he was made a saint and this day has been recognised ever since, with Christians making a pilgrimage to his monastery.
On St. David’s Day, the famous fiery dragon of the Welsh flag is flown across Wales and many people wear traditional Welsh clothing, pinning the Welsh symbols of a daffodil or leek to their attire. Despite the day not being a bank holiday, church festivals are held across the country, alongside parades, readings and recitals. Traditional Welsh food, such as lamb, Welsh cakes and leek dishes are also enjoyed.
A seemingly more understated celebration than that of its Celtic neighbours, St. David’s Day still takes the opportunity to be proud of all things Welsh.
Do you celebrate your country’s national day? Perhaps you live in England and would like to see more made of the celebrations here. eSense Translations would love to hear your stories and opinions. Just leave them in the comments below.
By Lorna Paice