What does your nationality mean to you?
If you are English, April 23rd should mean something to you. Do you know why? It is in fact your national day: St George’s Day. However, unlike national days celebrated in other countries, this date holds little or no significance for the majority of the English population.
As students in Scotland, we know that we have a day off every November 30th for St Andrew’s Day. This day is actually a “voluntary” public holiday which the University chooses to uphold. Any other decision would seem wrong in a town where there are serious celebrations on this day: pipe bands, live music and even an outdoor ceilidh in South Street as dusk falls. The Scots enjoy their national day elsewhere too. Motorists crossing the Scottish border might have been surprised last year to see blue sheep grazing in the fields adjoining the motorway – farmers had joined in the celebrations by spray painting their flock: and why not? A bit of national pride is definitely a good thing. It brings people together, especially if those not originally from the country also take part. What better way to show willingness to integrate?
St Patrick’s Day is a public holiday for the Irish and a bank holiday for the Northern Irish. Its celebration has spread far
beyond the Emerald Isle. Worldwide, green is worn with pride; rivers and waters are dyed green; buildings are illuminated with green light; parades are held, and an amazing quantity of Guinness is drunk. The world has latched on to the drinking culture offered by the day, but for the Irish it certainly means something more: they really do glow with national pride.
I was in Lyon in France for their equivalent day, Bastille Day on 14th July this year. It is a bank holiday, so I was off work and able to enjoy the atmosphere. Walking around the city you noticed an unusual buzz. The French were out in the sun with their family and friends, just enjoying the chance to be free from work. It is definitely a good idea to schedule a national holiday in the middle of July when the weather is almost guaranteed to be good.
In the afternoon, the firecrackers began. Any sensitive French pets must hate July 14th. The first few times I jumped as firecrackers shot horizontally along the pavement and exploded at my side, but I got used to it after a dozen or so. In the evening the atmosphere was building. There was a beautiful sunset, which only added to the general splendour. Everyone in the city seemed to be out in the streets, eating delicacies from street stalls, joking with friends as they strolled and pausing to dance at several impromptu riverbank dance locations. All this was accompanied by a sort of firecracker crescendo – set off more and more, even in the narrowest streets thronging with crowds of people. There was to be a huge fireworks display at 10pm launched from the top of the Fourvière hill which overlooks the city. At about 9pm there were mass movements towards the best vantage points. I was with a French girl who had been tipped off that the best place to view from was a park halfway up a hill opposite Fourvière, not as busy as the main streets and with a brilliant side-on view of the action. When the fireworks began the faces of the people watching lit up. For that moment, the normal stress of daily life disappeared. Instead, there was just childlike glee and marvel. It was heart-warming to see. At the display’s grand climactic ending, red, white and blue fireworks like the French Tricolore flag sparkled and boomed, filling the night sky. French people of all ages all over the city, caught up in the moment, whooped and yelled. The noise resonated in the city basin. The people who had been watching in the park with us carried on whooping and yelling all the way down the hill as they made their way home: simple, unadulterated joie de vivre.
And then, in stark contrast, there’s England. Note that St George’s Day is not an official bank holiday, although there is a group with a website and a petition desperately trying to encourage the government to make it one. And who can blame them? National identity should be increasingly important in an ever more globalised world. Without it, what makes us us? It is true that there is more English national pride felt by the country during the great sporting events, such as the football World Cup – English flags and bunting appear everywhere. You would think the streets are deserted during England matches if not for the silence being punctuated by wild cheering when England scores. However, you do have to be a smidgen interested in football to be swept up in the frenzy.
A proper national holiday, not requiring any special interest apart from a vague interest in England, would be a great thing. What about reinventing St George’s Day? 23rd April is ironically a perfect date as it is in the middle of springtime, the season for new beginnings. We just need more enthusiasm from the English. Perhaps the coalition government should consider whether a day off work would start the ball rolling?