St. George’s Day commemorates the life of St. George, a Roman soldier and Christian martyr. St. George’s Day is a provincial holiday in Newfoundland and Labrador in Canada. Here it is observed on the Monday closest to April 23 each year.
St. George was born about the year 280 CE in what is now Turkey. He was a soldier and rose through the ranks of the Roman army, eventually becoming a personal guard to the Emperor Diocletian. He was executed for being Christian on April 23, 303 CE, and is buried in the town of Lod in Israel.
He is most widely known for slaying a dragon. According to legend, the only well in the town of Silene was guarded by a dragon. In order to get water, the inhabitants of the town had to offer a human sacrifice every day to the dragon. The person to be sacrificed was chosen by lots. On the day that St. George was visiting, a princess had been selected to be sacrificed. However, he killed the dragon, saved the princess and gave the people of Silene access to water. In gratitude, they converted to Christianity. It is thought that the dragon represents a type of pagan belief that included human sacrifice.
The most widely recognized St. George’s Day symbol is St. George’s cross. This is a red cross on a white background, often displayed as a flag. It is used in England’s national flag, as part of the Union Jack (a jack being a small maritime flag) – the national flag of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. St. George’s cross was originally the flag of the maritime Republic of Genoa. In about 1190, the king of England started paying the Doge of Genoa to protect ships originally from the city of London and the rest of England that sailed in the Mediterranean region.
During the Middle Ages, he was the patron saint of the crusaders, and they spread the cult of St. George throughout Europe.
St. George’s Day, also called the Feast of St. George, is celebrated by various Christian Churches and by the several nations, old kingdoms, regions, states, countries and cities of which Saint George is the patron saint, including Bulgaria, England, Georgia, Liguria, Genoa, Portugal, Venice, Cáceres, Alcoy, Aragon, Catalonia and Lithuania. The saint also has his state holiday in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
In much of the world, St. George’s Day is normally celebrated on 23 April. However, Church of England rules denote that no saints’ day should be celebrated between Palm Sunday and the Sunday after Easter, so if April 23 falls in that period, the celebrations are transferred to the next Monday. The date is the traditionally accepted date of the saint’s death in the Diocletianic Persecution of AD 303.
St. George (Jurgis) is the second patron saint of Lithuania, the first being St. Casimir (Kazimieras). Here he is considered the protector of animals, and horses in particular. Over time, his feast day replaced the old pagan spring festival of Jorė. April 23 was the day farm animals were herded outside to graze. An old custom was to stroke them with willow branches as they left the barns, to ensure they would be fat, healthy and safe from wolves. Special small loaves of bread were baked on that day and handed out to beggars at local churches, in return fro prayers for safekeeping of the farm animals. Early in the 20th century, the bread ritual still included carrying loaves around the fields and burying them in the soil, as a way of bonding with Mother Earth. It ws said that the morning of St. George’s day was the best time to sow rue. In some areas, Easter eggs (margučiai) were dyed and decorated, just as at Easter. Some fasted on that day, eating no fat, only fish and bread.
St. George is also the patron saint of Lithuanian Scouts, and the day is commemorated with special meetings. In various regions of Lithuania it is now celebrated with special Masses and festivals.