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St. George's Day: exploring an English Tradition

This Thursday (April 23rd), the people of England are set to fly the flag for St. George's Day - albeit from their windowsills.

As one of many well-established traditions, the event gives English people the chance to reflect on their heritage and celebrate the courageous tale of the patron saint of England.

But while the patron saints of Scotland, Wales and Ireland are celebrated with National holidays, it might be said that the gallantry of st. George is beginning to fade into obscurity.

To mark the occasion, here's all you need to know about the man, the myth and the day itself.

Who was Saint George?

Saint George, also known as George of Lydda, was a soldier of Greek origin who was sentenced to death in the year 303 for refusing to give up his Christian faith. After his execution, he became one of the most admired martyrs in Christianity: his life is celebrated in countries throughout the world, including Ethiopia, Georgia and Catalonia. In Catholicism, George is seen as one of the 'Fourteen Holy Helpers', a group of saints venerated together for their work against adversity. Many of these saints were praised for their work during the black plague: however, most remember George for his bravery against a rather different foe (but we'll get to that later).

His memorial, Saint George's Day, is traditionally celebrated on 23 April.

What is his story?

As far as we know, the legend of Saint George and the Dragon was first recorded in the 11th century - some sources say in Georgia. It reached Catholic Europe in the 12th century. The story goes that a fierce dragon was causing panic at the city of Silene, Libya, at the time Saint George arrived there. In order to prevent the dragon from terrorising and destroying the entire city, the local community decided that they would offer two sheep each day to the dragon. Yet, it soon became apparent that this offering was not enough, and they were forced to sacrifice humans instead. The decision of who was to be sacrificed was made by the people.

A statue of St. George in Berlin, Germany
A statue of St. George in Berlin, Germany

After George's arrival, the king's daughter was chosen to be sacrificed: legend has it that Saint George saved the girl and the city by slaying the dragon with a lance. The king was so grateful that he offered him treasures as a reward for saving his daughter's life, but Saint George refused, giving the riches to the poor people of the city instead. The legend has been told and re-told hundreds of times over the years, with a few variations. During the medieval period, tales of romance would state that the lance with which Saint George slew the dragon was called Ascalon, after the Levantine city of Ashkelon, today in Israel.

Why does Britain celebrate St. George's Day?

It is very likely that St. George never visited England. Why, then, is he England's patron saint?

The reason lies with England's Catholic monarchy. From the 14th Century, St George was regarded as a special protector of the English after King Edward III established the Order of the Garter in his name. After a series of victorious battles - such as the battle of Agincourt in 1415 - he would soon become the patron saint of England. From then on, the legend would remain relevant for hundreds of years in religion, arts and popular culture.

In the 16th Century, Shakespeare closed the third act of his play Henry V with the words: ‘Cry God for Harry, England and St George'. Later, in the 20th Century, Prime Minister Winston Churchill would name his personal aircraft Ascalon, in a tribute to the lance that slayed the dragon.

Ascalon was a Avro York aircraft used by both Winston Churchill and the King
Ascalon was a Avro York aircraft used by both Winston Churchill and the King

The saint also plays a major part in England's national identity. The St George's Cross, which was rumoured to be flown by the man himself, was established as the only national banner of England in 1552. Its design - which is formed of a red cross with a white background - also makes up part of the Union jack, the flag of Great Britain.

Whilst the memorial may not be a national holiday (meaning that transport, retailers and banks remain open as usual) both the story of Saint George and the red cross motif continue to be used throughout English culture.

On the day itself, pubs, restaurants and streets are adorned with st. George's flags. Some towns and cities - particularly rural areas - hold annual celebratory parades, with traditional English food, folk music and morris dancers.

Whilst this year's festivities have been put on hold, we hope you will be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the annual English tradition next year!

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