Who Was St George?
As with many early Christian missionaries, martyrs and people of religious importance details of their origins are sometimes lost in the mists of time. St. George is no different and was most probably a high ranking officer in the Roman army in 4th century Palestine later becoming the patron saint of England, Ethiopia, Georgia, Catalonia, Aragon and Valencia in Spain; and one of the patron saints of Portugal, Russia, Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro, Malta and Gozo and celebrated in many more.
St. George’s Early Life
In common with many of the earlier Christian saints there is very little reliable information about George’s early life. There are two main sources of information, both dating to a couple of centuries after his death: one in Greek and the other in Latin.
The Greek version, dating from the 5th century, is the most complete and says (although there is little to confirm it) that he was born in Cappadocia, modern day Turkey, to Christian parents. His father, Gerontius, was from Cappadocia and served in the Roman army, whilst his mother Polychronia was originally from Lydda (now Lod in Israel).
His father was killed for his Christian faith when George was 14 and his mother subsequently returned with George to her home town in Palestine where she died a couple of years later.
Finding himself alone in the world, the 16 year old George made his way to Nicomedia in what is now Turkey, the ancient eastern capital of Roman rule where, following in his father’s footsteps, he signed up to the Roman army under the command of the Emperor Diocletian.
St. George’s Later Life
George clearly inherited his parent’s Christian faith as he rebelled against Emperor Diocletian’s religious cleansing of the Roman Army which threatened expulsion and execution should conversion to the Roman pantheon of gods not be undertaken.
The Greek and Latin versions of his torture and ultimate death vary in their dramaticism with the Greek version stating he withstood torture for an unspecified period of time whilst the Latin version claims he suffered more than twenty separate tortures over the course of seven years during which time 40,900 pagans were converted to Christianity.
However long this period of persecution by Emperor Diocletian lasted (Diocletian was himself a former soldier) the ultimate outcome was death by beheading. The execution took place on 23rd April in AD 304 but not before Empress Alexander (who may have been Diocletian’s wife!), impressed by his fortitude under torture, herself converted to Christianity and was martyred with him.
George was buried in Lydda (Lod) and early Christians very quickly began to venerate him as a martyr.
Why Was St. George Made a Saint?
By the 5th century the veneration of George that had begun in Lydda had reached the Christian Western Roman Empire and came to the attention of Pope Gelasius I who promptly canonised him in 494 AD.
The early worship of St. George was centred around his reputed burial site in Lydda but by the end of the 6th century seemed to have moved to his birthplace of Cappadocia.
However, by the time of the Muslim conquests in the Middle East there was a church dedicated to St. George in Lydda which was destroyed and rebuilt several times with the last rebuild being as recently as 1872.
The legends we have all heard about St. George slaying a dragon are unfortunately mere stories created in the 11th century. They tell of a dragon that has taken up residence in the city of Silene (in modern day Libya).
The dragon could apparently be placated by tempting morsels of human flesh, and George just happened to be passing through when a princess was being offered up as the latest sacrifice, saving the princess by despatching the dragon. His great bravery in defeating the dragon was said to have caused the people of Silene to convert en masse to Christianity. A great story, with absolutely no basis in reality!
However, St. George’s courage and strength under torture greatly appealed to the European Knights’ of the 11th and 12th century Crusades to the Holy Land.
The legend of the dragon slayer spoke to the romantic chivalry and courtly love of that era and as such he acquired a bit of a fan club who spoke of his bravery upon returning to their homelands.
The Knights of the Templar’s red cross “is one of the symbols of a religious order of Christian warrior monks” but also due to the association of the Knights with Freemasons “Because there were many symbols in Freemasonry and each of them could have a couple of meaning, the sign of the cross was not an exclusion.”
St. George did not become patron saint of England until 1350 when King Edward III formed ‘The Order of the Garter’. With no connection to the country, in fact he never set foot on English soil, it was thought that because he had no links to any part of the country there would be no rivalry and all of England would be able to unite behind St. George.
Is St. George’s Day a Bank (Public) Holiday?
St. George’s Day is celebrated on 23rd April, the day of his death. It is not a bank holiday in England nor any other realm of the UK.
However, he is also the patron saint of several other countries and venerated in many more.
He is patron saint of Ethiopia, Georgia, the region of Catalonia, Aragon and Valencia in Spain; and one of the patron saints of Portugal, Russia, Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro and the Mediterranean islands of Malta and Gozo, and various cities such as Rio de Janeiro.
The island of Gozo holds a horse race in the streets and Sicily has a three day festival in May to celebrate it.
Barcelona, capital of Catalonia, has a national holiday on St. George’s day and celebrates by lovers exchanging gifts of red roses and books. In Albania bonfires are lit, whilst Bulgarians spit roast entire sheep and May 6th (the Gregorian calendar equivalent of 23 April) is a public holiday.