For a long time now I’ve kind of envied people who have a strong sense of national pride. I still remember when I told my Dad that I was making England my permanent home, having moved there years before from my native Australia. He said that he felt sorry for me because from that point on I’d never really belong anywhere; I’d be considered Australian in England and English in Australia. As a post-war Dutch immigrant Dad knew what he was talking about but I didn’t completely grasp his point for a number of years, so busy was I enjoying the novelty of my new home.
But then one night I was in a pub in London watching a football match with a crowd of English friends. A lot of them weren’t really into football but every single person in that pub – with the glaring exception of the expat girl in the corner – shared a patriotic passion for their country and a desperate hope that in this football match, England would triumph. There was no question for them. But I wasn’t English so I didn’t feel that blind sense of nationalistic love, and I realised that my loyalty to Australia had been diluted by the years I’d spent in England. Dad was right – the moment I boarded a plane out of Australia at the age of 20 I gave up my right to the rousing sense of community that made every other person in that room into a part of something bigger. I left the pub in tears.
Having said that though… I’m a little perplexed today by the increasing popularity of the idea that England should have a national holiday for St George’s Day. I completely understand the desire for countries to promote a sense of national solidarity, especially when their freedom and independence have been hard-won. I can get behind France’s Bastille Day, American Independence Day and Australia Day, each of which celebrates a historical event which has led to the formation of a free and independent nation (without, for the moment, getting into what that might have meant for indigenous peoples…).
But St George’s Day? In recent years I’ve been surprised, in my travels, by the widespread adoration of the saintly George, who I’d always associated with my adopted homeland of England. In Palestine I visited St George’s Monastery in the Wadi Qelt, and learned that George had lived in Palestine as a child and is patron saint of Palestinian Christians, many of whom have a stone-engraved picture of him in front of their homes to evoke his protection. In Coptic Cairo I visited a monastery where they display the instruments of torture apparently used in the vain attempt to force George to renounce his Christian faith, and where tourists are invited to seek St George’s grace by wrapping a chain around their necks and bodies. In Pérouges, a medieval city in France, I saw several representations of the saint, who is considered by local legend to have fought and defeated the dragon which appears on the city’s crest.
And these are just a few places that I happen to have visited. It only takes a minute on the internet to discover that St George is also considered patron saint or protector to Bulgaria, Georgia, Portugal, Montenegro and Ethiopia, the Mediterranean islands of Malta and Gozo, the city of Beirut in Lebanon and the German city of Freiburg im Breisgau, as well as the Boy Scouts of America and sufferers of skin disease and syphilis, to name but a few.
Part of my pride in getting a British passport a few years ago (to sit happily alongside my Australian one) lay in my belief that I was officially joining the ranks of a people who strive to be rational, just and fair, and, to a very large extent, secular. This is why I struggle to understand why such a large percentage of the population wishes to celebrate, by virtue of a national holiday, a man who was born in Eastern Turkey, moved to Palestine and became a Roman soldier, then went on to erm, slay a dragon, then become a martyr to his Christian faith. Yes, his bravery, fortitude and loyalty are to be commended, but isn’t there a better way of celebrating a proud and open-minded nation than this?
I’m open to suggestions.