St George’s Day – a meaningless, fake tradition invented in the 1990s to sell beer

I love the ancient tradition of celebrating St George’s Day with flags and parties, which dates all the way back to about 1998, when it was invented by card companies and brewers. Before Scottish and Welsh devolution, probably not one person in 100 could name this day; until Euro 96 you’d almost never see the St George’s Cross, either, except on Anglican churches.

Then Happy St George’s Day cards appeared in the shops, and it became a national day, with all sorts of invented traditions, such as drinking ale surrounded by red-and-white bunting, or hand-wringing articles about what Englishness means and whether we can now “claim back the flag from the far Right”, or my particular favourite, “St George was Turkish or Palestinian and this shows how vibrantly multicultural English identity is”. Personally I’d like a national day when we all go around muttering “sorry, sorry” while getting barged into, but that’s my own take on national character.

In summary, the whole national day was invented to sell tat, just as Irish national identity was created to sell beer and expensive woollen fabrics to Americans. I have no interest in celebrating St George’s Day, not because I’m ashamed of our national identity, but because I’m secure in it. After all, I don’t need to ask myself what being a West “means” or what my family identity is; it’s just my family. English people never used to ask what Englishness meant, because there was no need to; it was one of those things. You knew it when you saw it.

The idea of what a national identity should mean has only arisen in the age of mass movement, in response to intellectuals who have denied the idea of the nation as a family as too exclusive or discriminatory. New Labour came up with all sorts of strange notions about what Britishness “meant”, such as “tolerance” and “respect for other cultures”, when it means nothing except coming from Britain, being descended from British people, or adopting Britain as your home (a nation is a family, and just like any family it adopts and marries out).

St George’s Day is a product of this anxiety, and a fairly weak one, too, although it’s interesting that it draws on an older sense of English culture. A crucial aspect of “culture” is the marking of feasts and fasts, common events that draw in members of the community, and St George’s Day was once a part of the English church calendar.

Like with much of English culture, it was destroyed in the Reformation, the celebration waning during the 17th and 18th centuries along with many other religious feasts. Since then much of English (and British, because for many people those two things are effectively the same) identity has been tied to the Empire and the Royal Family and various related institutions such as the military; as the former has gone, all that really survives is the House of Windsor, which explains why that institution remains stronger than ever in our uncertain times.

As a result we’re having to reinvent tradition, but it all feels a bit pained and unnatural, when this is a day best left to the church. A far better national day would be June 15, Magna Carta Day: a day to celebrate the rule of law and individual freedom, concepts that, contrary to what people believe, do not just spring from nowhere but are intimately linked to the concept of England as a political entity. That’s what makes me feel proud, but most of all grateful, to be English.

This article was published at Telegraph blogs

Comments so far

  1. “St George’s Day was once a part of the English church calendar. Like with much of English culture, it was destroyed in the Reformation the celebration waning during the 17th and 18th centuries…”

    Ronald Hutton (who has read all the parish records so we don’t have to) suggested that St George’s Day was one of the few observances that survived the Reformation unwaned. It was this continued popularity that led to the appropriation of St George’s Day by the restored Stuart dynasty (Charles II chose to be crowned on the 23rd April … as did James II) and it was this political pollution that led to its fall from favour after the Glorious Revolution. Thereafter paying to have bells rung on this day became ideologically suspect.

    Just trying to help. Please don’t feel you have to resign or anything.

  2. I think most “traditions” are in a large part manufactured and most identities built around more myth than substance. I am 36 and was brought up mostly to feel British first and foremost until Scottish nationalism got going. Now England is re-inventing itself.

What do you think?