It's St George's Day - the day when, theoretically, England celebrates its patron saint.
The emblem of St George - a red cross on a white background - is embedded in British culture. It's the recognised flag of England and is integral to the (Union) Jack, the British flag. The life of St George has been celebrated for more than 1,000 years. His reputation is immense - he's the saint who slayed a dragon - and the English, and indeed many other nations, have claimed him for their own.
But was he real? Is St George's reputation merited? Is he important to us, today, or is he merely a myth and irrelevant in the 21st century?
If we believe the stories, St George WAS an extremely brave person and one well worth celebrating. There are various versions of the St George legend but all involve the usual ingredients - a dragon, a fair maiden and a handsome knight on a horse who comes to her rescue when the dragon threatens to eat her!
The age-old story goes something like this.
St George is travelling around looking for good deeds to perform as all good knights do. He meets an old man who tells him about a village which is terrorised by a hideous and enormous dragon. Every day the dragon demands that a beautiful maiden is sacrificed to him or he will destroy the village. All the young girls have been killed save one, the king's daughter who is due to be sacrificed the very next day. If a knight can be found who will slay the dragon, he may win the hand of the princess.
George sets out at daybreak and arrives in the village just as the girl is being taken to the dragon. He persuades her to return home, and goes up, alone, to the dragon's cave where, after a long battle in which he fights for his life, George finally defeats the creature.
He has been hailed as a hero ever since.
This sounds pretty much like many of the ancient and later fairy tales which relate a story, real or otherwise, of good triumphant over evil and concludes with 'happy ever after' for the good guys.
It's an interesting legend but what was the reality of St George's life and what is his legacy? And WHY is he the patron saint of England?
A little research will tell you that there was, apparently, a person who lived in the third century who became St George. But he wasn't English. The perceived wisdom is that he was a Roman soldier who was born in Turkey into a Christian family at a time when Christianity was quite new. He served under pagan Roman authority but eventually protested against Rome's persecution of Christians. He was imprisoned and tortured but remained true to his faith and was eventually martyred - beheaded at Lydda in Palestine.
It's unlikely he ever set foot in England. I can't tell you how the dragon legend developed but even that didn't happen in the British Isles - the setting for the story is North Africa! Yet his story grabbed the attention of the English who some say identified with George's chivalry, gallantry and bravery. He became important in the British psyche and in England, St George's Day has been celebrated since the 15th century - in those days it was as big a celebration as Christmas! His feast day on April 23rd is the accepted date of his death in AD 303.
Today, although the flag of St George is flying along the length of my village High Street and I'm aware that some communities celebrate and there have been attempts to revive interest in England's patron saint in recent years, mostly the day goes largely unnoticed.
Unlike St Patrick's Day in Ireland (March 17th) and even St David's Day in Wales (March 1st) poor old St George is ignored by the population of the country that claims him as their patron saint. On St Patrick's Day loads of people wished me 'Happy St Paddy's Day' on Facebook and not one of them is Irish! I've not had one 'Happy St George's Day' message today! Weird that.
But, although he's become a bit of a cariacture with his slaying of the dragon thing, and his reputation may have got slightly lost or at least muddled up it in the mists of time, I believe St George can still be an example to us all. Not in the way which some people use his memory.... for some the 'English' St George and his flag are central to a rather warped view of nationalism.... but in that his story and his life stands for real integrity and bravery in the face of adversity and also talks of self sacrifice of the sort which is rather rare these days.
Many people believe that the 'dragon' in the tale represents the Devil and it's St George's defeat of evil, or at least his efforts to prevent evil (the persecution of the early Christians) that is the central point of the ages old story. It's that bravery and sacrifice which is St George's legacy and which, even in these modern times, can be a lesson to us all.
As this St George's Day draws to a close I'm left with several questions in my mind, for myself.
What am I doing to make the world a better place, to fight injustice and wrong? Are there any 'dragons' which I should be standing up to? Do I have the courage to swim against the tide of cultural indifference to the sufferings of others? And what might MY legacy be for future generations?
And while I'm thinking about it all....I do hope you have all had a very Happy St George's Day!