St George's Day: A Cultural History
The modern celebration of St. George's Day, frequently associated with intense English nationalism, grew out of a religious feast that commemorated a Middle-Eastern individual who died protesting an intolerant empire. Historians and journalists have looked to the medieval period to explain how this foreigner inspired the national holiday of England, neglecting the five hundred years from the Reformation to the present. This project is the first examination of the modern holiday, and it argues that St. George's Day was first celebrated as a nationalistic holiday in eighteenth-century North America and was only introduced into England at the end of the nineteenth century. Situated in the crossroads of cultural history and holiday studies, this study examines the changing meaning of rituals on St. George's Day: religious liturgies, ridings of St. George, feasts of the Order of the Garter, and annual dinners of St. George's societies. The investigation maintains that the holiday rose in prominence as a religious feast day during the medieval period with different segments of society celebrating St. George under a variety of identities: clergy honored a martyr, knights a warrior, and commoners a dragon-slayer. Participants, however, venerated him primarily as a saint in order to avoid time in purgatory, be cured of illness, win a battle, or gain his protection. The Reformation ended St. George's Day as a religious holiday, but it inspired a new version of St. George. Protestant reformers and Enlightenment thinkers attacked the existence of a real St. George, which enabled sixteenth-century authors to reinvent the saint as a mythical figure native to England and representing the nation. Ethnic societies dedicated to St. George in eighteenth-century America revived the celebration of St. George's Day, and these celebrations honored St. George as the ideal Englishman, not as a real person. Moreover, the principal purpose of the holiday shifted from seeking supernatural aid to increasing devotion to England. The holiday only reappeared in England as a national celebration in the 1890s. Festivities climaxed during the interwar years, but fell from favor after World War II, only to experience a minor revival in the last two decades.
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