In December, I did a post on British Christmas traditions and Boxing Day. Since this week was St. George’s Day, I thought I might explain some of the other popular (and less popular) holidays celebrated in the UK. In addition to holidays we also celebrate in the US, like Halloween and Easter, there are a number of uniquely British holidays that we would be hard pressed to understand on this side of the pond. Cause what the fuck is Guy Fawkes Day, right?
Guy Fawkes Day is also called Bonfire Night, and falls on November 5th each year. The holiday commemorates the ‘Gunpowder Plot’ you may (but probably won’t) remember from history class. Guy Fawkes tried to blow up Parliament in 1605. He and his co-criminals wanted to kill King James I and install a Catholic king. The holiday started with people celebrating James’ survival by lighting bonfires. It has evolved in the past 400 years, but often featured the burning of effigies. Effigies of Guy Fawkes were obviously the most popular,
but people also burned effigies of the pope and the devil, making it a pretty anti-Catholic holiday in the 17th and 18th centuries. Children would usually make the Guy effigies and then collect money from neighbors (I’m unclear on why they deserved money, but for an enterprising child I’m sure it was a good deal). The holiday declined in popularity in the late 19th century, and in the 20th became more of Firework Night. One assumes that throughout the centuries, it has also been a holiday that involved heavy drinking. But it’s mostly a holiday in decline, having lost all meaning with respect to government or religion. One exception is Lewes, which has the (arguably) largest Bonfire Night celebration in Great Britain.
Saint George is the patron saint of England, so this is a holiday really only celebrated in England. It falls on April 23rd each year. His flag, the white background and the red cross is the flag of England as well. (If you’re confused right now, I’ll help you by telling you that the Union Jack is the flag of the UK). The myth says that St. George (presumably known just as George when he was alive) was a Roman soldier in the 3rd century. As a Christian, he protested the Roman empire’s persecution of his faith, earning him some enemies in Rome and he was beheaded in 303 AD. Some time before his beheading, he slayed a dragon that was terrorizing a village in modern-day Libya. Since he never visited England, I’m a little unsure why he is the patron saint of that country, but he is also the patron saint of a lot of other countries and regions, as well as scouting, soldiers, archers, etc. etc. Those patron saints are busy people. St. George, because he was a famous soldier, became a figure of admiration for European knights during the age of chivalry, and I think that’s how St. George was adopted as the patron saint of a country he’d never visited.
St. George’s day isn’t really ‘celebrated’ in England. People might have a rose in their button-hole. Businesses might fly the flag of St. George. One website suggested excellent ways to celebrate might include ‘eating fish and chips’ and ‘going on a pub crawl’. As far as I can tell, that’s how England celebrates days that end in y. People don’t even have the day off work, unfortunately. There are events for children, reenacting the story of St. George and the dragon, but not much more. There has been a movement in recent years to make it a national holiday, and to bring it back as a big part of English culture, but I’m not certain they’ll come to much.
If you are going to choose a holiday to celebrate on April 23rd, I would celebrate Shakespeare’s Birthday. Shakespeare was actually English, for one thing, and he was far more significant than St. George to the English identity and legacy.
Next week, May will begin, and with it, May Day!
I remember being somewhat aware of this holiday growing up in the US, but I’ve never actually seen a maypole. In the UK, they do dance around the maypole, covering it with ribbons. They also engage in something called Morris Dancing, which seems to involve black-face. I’ll pass on that. People dress up like weirdos, play the accordion, and dance around with black faces.
The racially insensitive face paint doesn’t seem to be absolutely necessary, but looking like an idiot is clearly integral to the celebration. We have something similar here in Philadelphia, called the Mummer’s parade.
May Day, like Halloween, has its roots in Pagan traditions, and unofficially celebrates the beginning of good weather. I like it. I think the spirit of it is similar to our Memorial Day, the unofficial beginning of what we think of as summer. It is a national bank holiday in the UK, so no work! Yay! I would venture to guess that most people don’t engage in the celebrations the holiday was made for, but do take the long weekend to spend time outdoors and enjoy the spring. I was in London for one of the nicest spring seasons they’ve had in a long time, so my experience is not perhaps representative, but I can say that warm days in London are worth more than any weather in any other place on earth. If you don’t believe me, go sit in Hyde Park or along the Victoria Embankment on a sunny day.
The UK has a number of other ‘bank holidays’, meaning businesses are closed and few people work, that don’t have any inherent traditions attached to them. The Spring bank holiday is the last week of May, the late Summer bank holiday is in August, and sometimes there are others for special occasions (the royal wedding in 2011, the jubilee in 2012). These are pretty similar to our Memorial and Labor day holidays. I think I like secular holidays best. No haughty traditions, no need to see relatives if you don’t care to. Just a day off work to do with as you like.
Remembrance Day is one of the more somber holiday on the UK calendar. Commemorated on November 11th each year (but often celebrated on the Sunday nearest that date), it marks the armistice that ended World War I. In reality, after so many other wars since 1918, the day becomes a catch-all for honoring service men and women who died during all the wars and skirmishes since that date. People wear poppies in their lapels and wreaths are laid at the many war memorials throughout the UK. One thing I noticed in my travels is that every small village has a monument listing the men they lost at war. It’s sort of lovely and humbling to see them all, and think of how those deaths would have impacted the people they left behind–especially in small villages that must have been even smaller 100 years ago.
A more light-hearted ‘holiday’ is Red Nose Day. I like this one. Comic Relief is a charity that organizes Red Nose Day. There are lots of entertainers and local events to get donations, in addition to a national telethon. Whenever we have charity events in the US, we get celebrities to sing patriotic songs about suffering and overcoming adversity. In the UK, they get them to make us laugh, and they do it every year. I like that. J.K. Rowling’s two Hogwarts ‘textbooks’ (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and Quidditch Through the Ages) were both written for Red Nose Day.
So, thank you Comic Relief. If you’re wondering, it’s called Red Nose Day because they sell red noses for you to wear at shops for donations to the charity.
This year’s Red Nose Day brought David Brent into the spotlight again for the first time in 10 years. Apparently, he’s a music agent now representing a young rapper.
You may notice that there’s no national holiday for England or for the UK, the way we celebrate July 4th. St. George’s day is the closest they have. N. Ireland celebrates St. Patrick’s day, and Wales celebrates St. David’s day as almost national holidays. A time to celebrate their unique identity within the UK. Similarly, Scotland has St. Andrew’s day. England, though, does not have a firm origin story around which to rally at a specific time. And if you think about it, it is impossible to say when England began to be England and ceased to be Briton. The Romans invaded in the 1st century AD (CE), but the area was already occupied by native Britons. Those people were gradually pushed further and further west, and are most closely related to the modern Welsh. After the Romans left, there were the waves and waves of Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian invasions. England is named after the Anglo-Saxons, so did it become England at that point? You could argue that when England became a unified country is a date to be celebrated. ‘Edgar the Peaceful’ united the country in the 10th century…and then it was promptly and thoroughly invaded, first by Danish vikings, then by William the Conqueror in 1066 AD. Much of modern British tradition stems from William’s rule (coronation at Westminster abbey, for example) rather than from Edgar’s influence. So the whole thing is a big ole confusing mess. I suppose they could just pick a day, but that doesn’t quite have the same significance as our 4th of July, or other national holidays more closely related to a great story of overcoming oppression. Then again, our traditions dictate we mark this great date by having my idiot neighbors set off amateur fireworks in the parking lot across the street and everyone eating dead animals while sitting on picnic tables. Not to mention, the Declaration of Independence was actually signed in the fall of 1776; John Hancock didn’t sign until November.
So, all holidays are utterly removed from the significance of the original day, and we should all feel free to celebrate whatever we like whenever we like. On that note, I’d better get ready to celebrate International Tuba Day next week!