Image: "Cake" toss
Lefteris Pitarakis  /  AP
Performers throw specially made "cakes" at one another during a Festival of English Food, coinciding with celebrations for St. George's Day on Wednesday.
updated 4/23/2008 3:46:22 PM ET 2008-04-23T19:46:22

Londoners gathered Wednesday in Trafalgar Square, beneath statues of imperial lions and military heroes, to celebrate England's patron saint —a third-century Turkish soldier who supposedly had the power to slay a dragon but likely never set foot in Britain.

Little wonder the English have an identity crisis.

April 23 is St. George's Day, England's national day. But it's not a public holiday, and for decades it passed largely unnoticed — a far cry from its rowdy Irish counterpart, St. Patrick's Day.

"We tend to be a bit more reserved. It's an English trait," said Janis Whincup, who attended the Trafalgar Square celebrations with a red and white St. George's flag draped over her shoulders.

That may be changing — St. George's Day is experiencing a revival, as is the idea of Englishness itself.

Outside the realm of sport, English patriotism and the St. George flag long were shunned by liberal-minded Britons, regarded as the preserve of right-wing "Little Englanders" steeped in nostalgia and a mistrust of foreigners. Politicians promoted the notion of Britishness — an amalgamated identity open to native and foreign-born citizens, and to English, Welsh and Scottish alike.

Celebrating English heritage
But with devolution of political power from London to Scotland and Wales — both of which have gained legislatures and a new assertiveness in the last decade — that British identity has begun to fray.

The English make up 50 million of Britain's 60 million inhabitants, and many feel it's time they celebrated their heritage — if only they can agree on what it is.

"English people aren't proud enough of their own country," said Pamela Ealham, a 75-year-old retiree. "We're English; we should celebrate it."

Politicians have begun to embrace Englishness. For the first time on the saint's day, the St. George's Cross flag flew Wednesday above the 10 Downing St. residence of Prime Minister Gordon Brown — a Scot.

"The prime minister's view is that of course we should celebrate our Britishness," said Brown's spokesman, Michael Ellam. "But celebrating our Britishness does not mean we cannot also celebrate our Englishness, Scottishness, Welshness or Northern Irishness."

There are signs of an unofficial revival, too. Pubs across the country planned celebratory roast beef dinners Wednesday. Party-supply companies reported a sharp rise in sales of red-and-white hats and streamers.

In recent years, sports has played a big part in rehabilitating the symbols of Englishness. When England's rugby team won the World Cup in 2003, and when its cricket squad beat Australia in 2005, jubilant fans waved the flag of St. George, giving it a new visibility.

But the flag remains, especially for immigrants and ethnic minority Britons, a touchy symbol.

There were few flags on display at the officially sanctioned Trafalgar Square celebration, which focused on an aspect of England unlikely to offend anything but the palate: food.

English food seeing a renaissance
Despite its dire reputation, English food is having something of a renaissance. Stalls lining the square sold pork pies and sausage rolls, blackcurrant jam, Stilton and Leicester cheeses and fresh oysters, crabs and scallops.

A distinctive cuisine unites the people of England. The preservation group English Heritage, which is encouraging people to celebrate St. George's Day, published a "how to" guide including traditional English recipes — from cheese scones to chicken tikka masala, an Anglo-Indian hybrid that rivals fish and chips as the country's most popular dish.

Debate rages about what it means to be English. Is English culture Morris dancing, or Britpop? Are the English an Anglo-Saxon race, or a polyglot nation built on waves of immigration, from Vikings and Normans to Indians, Pakistanis, Jamaicans, Poles and Lithuanians?

Traditional English nationalists tend to be wary of immigration and skeptical of closer ties with Europe. But a new breed of "civic nationalists," including the singer Billy Bragg and the writer Paul Kingsnorth, favor embracing multiculturalism and membership in Europe. In a recent article for the New Statesman, Kingsnorth called it patriotism "attached to place not race, geography not biology."

A symbol of 'freedom'
Peter Tatchell, a gay rights and civil-liberties campaigner, argued that St. George should be adopted as a symbol of "freedom, dissent and multiculturalism."

Little is known for certain about the saint's life, but he is thought to have been a soldier of the Roman Empire from Cappadocia, in present-day Turkey, who was executed after refusing to persecute Christians. The story of him slaying a dragon that was terrorizing a village has been circulating since the Middle Ages. He is the patron saint of several countries — including Germany, Portugal and Georgia, which is named for him — as well as the city of Beirut and the Boy Scout movement.

St. George's popularity spread from the Middle East to Europe with knights returning from the Crusades, and he came to be regarded as a protector of English troops. In 1222 religious leaders in England — which was then Roman Catholic — declared a holiday in his honor, and by the end of the 14th century he was seen as England's patron saint.

"He was a rebel from the Middle East. His father was Turkish and his mother probably Palestinian," Tatchell said. "St. George's parentage embodies multiculturalism and his life expresses the values of English liberalism and dissent."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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