Things are Changing
Maybe the reluctance was because, for a time the St George flag - a red cross on a field of white - had been co-opted by England's far right and a particularly ugly kind of hooliganism.
But all that is changing, a fact signalled by the flying of the St George Flag over 10 Downing Street in 2008 for the first time in 12 years. Now, St George's Day celebrations are popping up all over England.
Who Was St George and Why is He England's Patron Saint
Good question and, as usual, nobody is quite sure of the answer.
Historically, he was a high ranking, 4th century Roman soldier who was tortured and beheaded for his faith. Known for his courage and fortitude, it's likely that his stories circulated during the Crusades.
In the 14th century, King Edward III proclaimed him England's Patron Saint when he created the Order of the Garter (one of the highest honors Britain's monarch can bestow)in his name. Later, soldiers on the Agincourt battlefield in Northern France were famously encouraged in his name by King Henry V. Shakespeare spread the word in Henry V when the King exhorts his troops, "God for Harry, England and St George".
Shakespeare may have had a vested interest in St George's Day celebrations. It wasShakespeare's birthday and, according to some stories, the day he died as well.
What About the Dragon?
Great story (see London guide Laura Porter's version) but a fiction I'm afraid. In the Middle Ages, the Devil was commonly depicted as a dragon and that probably gave rise to the story, as well as thousands of variations on St George and the Dragon as a pub name up and down the country.
There is also a legend that he slew the dragon on Uffington Hill, near the famous White Horse of Uffington and that grass could never grow where the dragon's blood fell.
St. Andrew is the patron saint of Scotland. St. Andrew was one of the Twelve Apostles (disciples of Jesus) and brother of Simon Peter (Saint Peter). He was a fisherman by trade, who lived in Galilee (in present-day Israel.) . He was the second person to be baptised by John the Baptist after Jesus. Saint Andrew is also the patron saint of Romania and Russia.
St Andrew's day is celebrated on the 30th November. St. Andrew 's Day is also connected with Advent, which begins on the nearest Sunday to 30 November.
The Scottish flag is the cross of St. Andrew, also known as the Saltire. It is said to be one of the oldest national flags of any country, dating back at least to the 12th century. St. Andrew is believed to have died on a diagonally transversed cross, similar to a crucifix, which the Romans sometimes used for executions and which, therefore, came to be called St. Andrew's cross. The blue stands for the sky.
St. Andrew 's Day marks the opening of Christmas Markets. Many Midwinter customs and folk superstitions are also connected to St. Andrew 's day. Around midnight on Nov 29th, the day before St Andrew's Day, it was traditional for girls to pray to St. Andrew for a husband. They would make a wish and look for a sign that they had been heard. A girl wishing to marry could:
First of all, 'What is Hogmanay?' If this is a word you are unfamiliar with - it means “New Year's Eve”. While bringing in the New Year is celebrated around the world, it is probably more important to many Scots than the celebration of Christmas.
The Origins of the word are not clear. Some say it is the celebration of the winter solstice among the Nords, while others say it is part of the Gaelic New Year's celebration of Samhain. In Europe, the winter solstice celebrations came from the ancient celebration of Saturnalia,which originated from a Roman winter festival. Other folk believe it came from the celebration of the 'Yule' by The Vikings which later contributed to the Twelve Days of Christmas. Other occasions we celebrate include Valentine's Day and of course St Andrew's Day.
During the Protestant Reformation period, Christmas was banned as it was seen as as being Roman Catholic and the celebrations were banned in Scotland for hundreds of years. Indeed it wasn't even a public holiday and many people had to work, and somewhere along the line New Year became the time for having time off work, celebrating with family etc and it became a much bigger and more important celebration than Christmas. But the excesses of Hogmanay were not liked by the Church either, and many of the celebrations went 'underground'. These days, however, all the Hogmanay customs and celebrations are seen as a huge part of Scottish culture, and now have spread throughout the world.
Hogmanay Traditional Celebrations
It may not be widely known but Christmas was not celebrated as a festival and virtually banned in Scotland for around 400 years, from the end of the 17th century to the 1950s. The reason for this has its roots in the Protestant Reformation when the Kirk portrayed Christmas as a Popish or Catholic feast and therefore had to be banned. Many Scots had to work over Christmas and their winter solstice holiday was therefore at New Year when family and friends gathered for a party and exchange presents, especially for the children, which came to be called hogmanay.
There are traditions before midnight such as cleaning the house on 31st December (including taking out the ashes from the fire in the days when coal fires were common). There is also the superstition to clear all your debts before "the bells" at midnight.
Immediately after midnight it is traditional to sing Robert Burns' "For Auld Lang Syne". Burns claimed it was based on an earlier fragment and certainly the tune was in print over 80 years before he published his version in 1788.
Torch and Bonfire Ceremonies
The traditional New Year ceremony of yesteryear would involve people dressing up in the hides of cattle and running around the village being hit by sticks. The festivities would also include the lighting of bonfires, rolling blazing tar barrels down the hill and tossing torches. Animal hide was also wrapped around sticks and ignited which produced a smoke that was believed to be very effective to ward off evil spirits. The smoking stick was also known as a Hogmanay.
Some of these customs do continue, especially in the small, older communities in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland where tradition, along with language and dialect are kept alive and well. On the Isle of Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides, the young boys form themselves into opposing bands, the leader of each wears a sheep skin, while a member carries a sack. The bands move through the village from house to house reciting a Gaelic rhyme. On being invited inside, the leader walks clockwise around the fire, while everyone hits the skin with sticks. The boys would be given some bannocks - fruit buns - for their sack before moving on to the next house.
One of the most spectacular Fire ceremonies takes place in Stonehaven, just south of Aberdeen on the North East coast. Giant fireballs, weighing up to 20 pounds are lit and swung around on five feet long metal poles, requiring 60 men to carry them as they march up and down the High Street. The origin of the pre-Christian custom is believed to be linked to the Winter Solstice of late December with the fireballs signifying the power of the sun, to purify the world by consuming evil spirits.
And it is worth remembering that January 2nd is a holiday in Scotland as well as the first day of the year - to give us all time to recover from a week of merry-making and celebration, all part of Scotland's fascinating cultural legacy of ancient customs and traditions surrounding the pagan festival of Hogmanay.
What Do People Do?
St David is the patron saint of Wales. March 1 is a day of celebration of both St David’s life and of the Welsh culture in Wales and in countries such as Canada and the United States. Many people attend special church services, parades, choral recitals or Welsh literature readings. Schools plan celebrations, often involving choirs, on the day.
The Welsh flag, a red dragon on a white and green background, is displayed prominently and a festive mood prevails. Children, particularly girls, and some adults wear traditional costume. Other people may pin a daffodil or a leek to their clothes as these are symbols of Wales. The traditional meal on St David's Day is cawl. This is a soup that is made of leek and other locally grown produce.
St David's Day is not a public holiday in the United Kingdom or countries such as Canada and the United States. Therefore government offices, schools, post offices and businesses are open.
However, it is a day of celebration so many schools, institutions and even businesses will have a special program for the day. Some villages and towns hold special parades so there may be some local disruption to traffic or public transport.
St David plays a very important role in Welsh culture but little is known about his life. It is believed that he lived to be 100 years old and that he died in 589, but the first texts on his life only appeared around five hundred years after his death. This means that it is difficult to tell which aspects of the St David’s story are true and which are legend. He was supposed to have been very gentle and physically strong and tall despite eating a frugal diet. His parents were Sant, the grandson of a prince of Ceredigion in south-west Wales, and Non, a niece of the legendary King Arthur.
St David travelled widely throughout Wales, Cornwall in the south-west of England, Brittany in France and possibly to Ireland and Jerusalem. He founded several churches and a monastery in Wales and eventually became an archbishop. St David was canonized in 1120 and March 1 was included in the church calendar as St David's Day. People started making pilgrimages to St David’s monastery after he was canonized. A cathedral still stands on its original site.
The Welsh flag, which features a red dragon on a white and green background, is often seen around the date of St David’s Day. Many people also pin a daffodil or a leek to their clothes as symbols of Wales.