St George’s Day: Patriotism Yes, Nationalism No

St George’s Day celebrated in England on 23rd April and Georgia on 23rd November and 6th May. A link between my old country and my new.

Pirosmani's Painting of a St George Feast in Bolnisi oil on cardboard

Pirosmani’s Painting of a St George Feast in Bolnisi oil on cardboard

St George is usually portrayed as this bloke on a horse with a big lance killing a fire breathing dragon.

St George killing a dragon on top of his column in Liberty Square, formerly Lenin Square in Tbilisi.

St George killing a dragon on top of his column in Liberty Square, formerly Lenin Square in Tbilisi.

How relevant is he to either 21st Century England or 21st Century Post Soviet Georgia?

The “Real” St George

The “real” George may have been born in Palestine in about 270 AD, to a Roman father and a mother from Cappadocia, in what is now eastern Turkey. He served the army of the pagan Emperor Diocletian until the order came to persecute fellow Christians. George would not deny his faith, so he was tortured, buried in the sand and finally beheaded, in the town of Lydda on 23 April 303. Historians disagree about many of the facts.

George is a man with a complex heritage, born as cultures and empires were colliding. George is a foreigner to both England and Georgia, although he lived considerably nearer to Georgia and his mother came from Cappadocia like the other major Georgian Saint: Nino, who is said to have brought Christianity to Georgia.

St George in Islamic Culture

Saint George is somewhat of an exception among saints and legends, in that he is known and respected by Muslims as well as by Christians, his  stature in the Middle East derives from the fact that his figure has become somewhat of a composite character mixing elements from Biblical, Quranic and folkloric sources, at times being partially identified with Al-Khidr, a righteous servant of Allah, who  possessed great wisdom or mystic knowledge.  He is said to have killed a dragon near the sea in Beirut and at the beginning of the 20th century, Muslim women used to visit his shrine in the area to pray for him.

St George and England

A good reason to celebrate St George’s Day in England is to keep him out of the grips of far right groups like the BNP, English Defence League and Britain First, who see him as some twisted symbol of nationalism.

Today (23 April) is also Shakespeare’s birthday, Shakespeare probably the most famous Englishman, who ever lived, mentions St George in Richard III.

“Advance our standards, set upon our foes Our ancient world of courage fair
St. George Inspire us with the spleen of fiery dragons
….. “Richard III. act v, sc.3

Traces of the cult of St George predate the Norman Conquest but it really took off when England’s French Speaking king Richard Coeur de Lion put the cross of St George on his shield to protect him during the Crusades in the 12th century. Saint Edmund and Edward the Confessors were rival contenders for England’s favourite saint. Cromwell suppressed St George celebrations because of their associations with idolatory. The Irish being predominantly Catholic have less issues celebrating Saint Patrick, who wasn’t Irish and may have been English or Welsh.

St George in the Catholic Church

In 1963, in the Roman Catholic Church, St George was demoted to a third class minor saint and removed from the Universal Calendar, with the proviso that he could be honoured in local calendars. Pope John Paul II restored St George to the calendar in 2000.

წმინდა გიორგი  Saint George

წმინდა გიორგი
Saint George

St George and Georgia

Saint George is a patron saint of Georgia, and it is claimed by Georgian author Enriko Gabisashvili that Saint George is the  most venerated here in Georgia. An 18th century Georgian geographer and historian Vakhushti Bagrationi wrote that there are 365 Orthodox churches in Georgia named after Saint George, according to the number of days in one year. Our local church, where my wife worships, is St George’s.

Image of ST George fighting the dragon.

Image of ST George fighting the dragon.

Nationalism and Patriotism

George Orwell made the case for a progressive English patriotism, which he defined as a celebration of the good things in English culture and its well known contributions to the world.  Like for example four of the top ten universities in the world are English. He contrasted it with nationalism, which he saw as aggressive and generally concerned with elevating one country’s attributes and interests above those of others and often involving outright hostility towards rival countries or ethnicities. Orwell (or was it Clemenceau or Johnson?) said “a patriot is a man who loves his country, whereas a nationalist is a man who hates everyone else’s

Ironically, one of the nice things about the English is that (with the exception of the idiots in the BNP and similar parties and Sun headline writers) they are pretty understated about their patriotism. It’s a strength, in the sense that crude nationalist parties have always had tiny followings in this country compared to many other European states and you don’t get the nauseating flag-worship you get in US politics either. It’s a weakness only really in that it’s sad when people feel they have nothing to celebrate about their culture and country.

There is plenty to celebrate from English culture for example: Shakespeare,  the Beatles , numerous Nobel Prize Laureates, Dizzee Rascal, the 1966 World Cup, the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, the Notting Hill Carnival, a decent cup of tea, Balti, Fish and Chips, wonderful puddings, Monty Python, giving the world an International Language, Samuel Johnson, Emmeline Pankhurst, Elizabeth Fry, Jaguar, Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter….I’m sure you could add many more….

When England play football, I want them to win. I want Chelsea to win the Champion’s league, this season (2013-2014), being a London team and the last English team competing, I would even want Liverpool or Manchester United to win if they were the last remaining English club in the competition. Usually I am very happy when Liverpool or United lose in domestic competitions, but in Europe I was happy to see Sheringham and Solskjær get the two last minute injury goals for United against Bayern Munich in 1999. I was also happy when Gerrard rallied Liverpool to a famous win against Milan in 2005.

In other sports I’m not so bothered if England and English teams lose.

At the last World Cup, England were the only team in the finals who didn’t have their own anthem played. They had to suffice with the British Anthem “God save the Queen” (and not the Sex Pistols version.)

“This fellow is…

“This fellow is wise enough to play the fool,
And to do that well craves a kind of wit.
He must observe their mood on whom he jests,
The quality of persons, and the time,
And, like the haggard, check at every feather
That comes before his eye. This is a practice
As full of labour as a wise man’s art,..”
Viola in William Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night”

Methinks a little Shakespeare might raise the cultural credibility of my blog 😉

Saint George’s Day


Today, 23 November is Saint George’s day in Georgia. Here it is a national holiday, many people go to church, like my wife did, to celebrate.

In England, too, there is Saint George’s Day but in England it falls on 23rd April, which despite also being the birthday of William Shakespeare (arguably the most famous Englishman ever) is not a national holiday. Saint George was a Roman, living in Palestine, who as a Christian was tortured and killed for his beliefs, the emperor Diocletian having issued an edict that Christian soldiers should be arrested and offer sacrifices to the Roman gods of the time. Saint George was adopted by the English as their  patron saint by Richard Coeur de Lion, our French speaking king, who painted the cross of St George onto his shield to protect him in the Crusades.

The slaying of dragons is the stuff of myth, but may have been popular with the English as the dragon was a symbol of Wales, England’s first colony.

We will celebrate by having a meal in a restaurant with Khato’s colleagues.

Saint George is also patron saint of Egypt, Portugal and Iraq …and Preston …and skin diseases.