9 Does Britain have a National Day?
9 Does Britain have a National
England’s national day is St. George’s Day (23 April). St. George is the patron saint of England. A story that first appeared in the 6th century tells that St. George rescued a hapless maid by slaying a fearsome fire-breathing dragon! The saint’s name was shouted as a battle cry by English knights who fought beneath the red-cross banner of St. George during the Hundred Years War (1338-1453). This is immortalised in Shakespeare’s play Henry V in the lines:
St. Patrick’s Day (17th March) is an official Bank Holiday in Northern Ireland. The work of St. Patrick (c.389-c.461) was a vital factor in the spread of Christianity in Ireland. Born in Britain, he was carried off by pirates, and spent six years in slavery before escaping and training as a missionary. The day is marked by the wearing of shamrocks (a clover-like plant), the national badge of both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
10 How do the British celebrate traditional and religious holidays?
In Britain, Christmas Day is normally spent at
home, with the family, and it is regarded as a celebration of the family
and its continuity. Preparations start well in advance, with the sending
of Christmas cards and installation of a decorated Christmas tree in a
prominent place in the home. Although it is now a firmly established
tradition, the Christmas tree was first popularised by Queen Victoria’s
husband, Prince Albert, who introduced the custom from his native Germany
The excitement begins for children on Christmas Eve, when they hang up
their stockings (an old sock or, more ambitiously, pillow cases) around
the fireplace or at the foot of the bed for Father Christmas to fill with
presents. The English Father Christmas or Santa Claus is first recorded in
his traditional red and white outfit in a woodcut of 1653, but the story
of Santa arriving in his reindeer-drawn sleigh and descending down the
chimney to fill children’s stockings with presents derives from the
In Wales the back door is opened to
release the Old Year at the first stroke of midnight. It is then locked up
to ‘keep the luck in’ and at the last stroke the New Year is let in at the
In recent years the custom of ‘trick or treating’ has gained in popularity. Although we commonly associate this practice with America, the custom originated in England as ‘Mischief Night’ when children declared one ‘lawless night’ of unpunished pranks (usually May Day eve or Halloween).
Halloween parties (usually for children) include games such as apple
bobbing, where apples are either floated in water or hung by a string. The
object of the game is for the players to put their hands behind their back
and try to seize an apple with their teeth
Traditionally Easter eggs, dyed and decorated or made of chocolate, are
given as presents symbolising new life and the coming of spring.
Easter parades are also part of the Easter tradition, with those taking
part wearing Easter bonnets or hats, traditionally decorated with spring
flowers and ribbons.
11 What and when are ‘bank’ holidays?
Many public holidays in Britain are known as ‘bank’ holidays - so called because these are days on which banks are legally closed. Most fall on a Monday.
In England and Wales there are six bank holidays: New Year’s Day, Easter Monday, May Day (not necessarily 1 May), Spring and Late Summer Holidays at the end of May and August respectively, and Boxing Day. There are also two common law holidays on Good Friday and Christmas Day.
In Scotland there are nine public holidays: New Year’s Day, January 2, Good Friday, Easter Monday, May Day (not necessarily 1 May), Spring and Summer Holidays at the end of May and the beginning of August respectively, Christmas Day and Boxing Day.
In Northern Ireland there are seven bank holidays: New Year’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day (17 March), Easter Monday, May Day (not necessarily 1 May), Spring and Late Summer Holidays at the end of May and August respectively, and Boxing Day. There are also two common law holidays on Good Friday and Christmas Day and a public holiday on the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne (12 July).
There are holidays in
lieu of those public holidays which fall at weekends. Shops, museums and
other public attractions, such as historic houses and sports centres, may
close on certain public holidays, particularly Christmas Day. As this
varies, it is advisable to check with the individual establishment
Pancake day or ‘Shrove Tuesday’ (the Tuesday which falls 41 days before Easter) is the eve of the Lenten fast. On this day in earlier times all Christians made their compulsory confessions or ‘shrifts’ from which the name ‘Shrove Tuesday’ derives, and took their last opportunity to eat up all the rich foods prohibited during Lent. Thus all eggs, butter and fat remaining in the house were made into pancakes, hence the festival’s usual nickname of Pancake Day. Though the strict observance of Lent is now rare, everyone enjoys eating the customary pancakes and some regions celebrate the day with pancake races. The oldest and most famous is held at Olney in Buckinghamshire. The race is run over 415 yards (about 380 metres) by women over sixteen, wearing a cap and apron. They must ‘toss’ their pancake (flip it over in the frying pan) at least three times during the race. The winner receives a kiss from the Pancake Bell Ringer - church bells were traditionally rung to remind parishioners to come to confession - and a prayer book from the vicar!
In 1605 Guy Fawkes, a Roman Catholic, and his fellow conspirators attempted to blow up King James I and the Houses of Parliament, as they disagreed with the King’s Protestant policies. They succeeded in storing some 30 barrels of gunpowder in a cellar under the Houses of Parliament, but before Parliament opened on November 5th, the ‘gunpowder plot’, as it has come to be known, was discovered. Guy Fawkes and his colleagues were executed for treason. Since then, the 5th of November has been celebrated in England by the burning on bonfires of stuffed figures of Guy Fawkes, usually accompanied by firework displays. These may be large organised events open to members of the public, or smaller, private gatherings of family and friends held in people’s gardens. ‘Guy Fawkes Night’ is also known as ‘Bonfire Night’ or ‘Firework Night’. In the days leading up to the 5th of November children traditionally take their home-made Guys out onto the streets of their town or village and ask passers-by for ‘a penny for the Guy’. This money is supposedly used as a contribution towards their fireworks.
14 What is the significance of the poppy and when is it worn?
The poppy is
traditionally worn on Remembrance Day in memory of service personnel who
lost their lives in the First and Second World Wars and subsequent
conflicts like the Falklands War and the Gulf War.
Remembrance Day falls on the nearest Sunday to 11 November - the day
peace was declared. The day is commemorated by church services around the
country and a parade of ex-service personnel in London’s Whitehall.
Wreaths of poppies are left at the Cenotaph,
15 What are Britain’s national flowers?
The national flower of England is the rose. The flower has been adopted as England’s emblem since the time of the Wars of the Roses - civil wars (1455-1485) between the royal house of Lancaster (whose emblem was a red rose) and the royal house of York (whose emblem was a white rose). The Yorkist regime ended with the defeat of King Richard III by the future Henry VII at Bosworth on 22 August 1485, and the two roses were united into the Tudor rose (a red rose with a white centre) by Henry VII when he married Elizabeth of York.
The national flower of Northern
Ireland is the shamrock, a three-leaved plant similar to clover which is
said to have been used by St. Patrick to illustrate the doctrine of the
The national flower of Wales is
usually considered to be the daffodil, which is traditionally worn on St.
David’s Day. However, the humble leek is also considered to be a
traditional emblem of Wales, possibly because its colours, white over
green, echo the ancient Welsh standard.
16 Where can I find out about British folk songs and folk tales?Numerous books have been written about British folk tales, and
most libraries in Britain stock a selection of books on both local and national folklore. Alternatively, contact:
A further valuable source of information is the library of the:
17 What are Britain’s national costumes?
18 What is Burns’ Night and how is it celebrated?Commemorating the birthday of the Scottish poet Robert Burns (1759 -1796), Burns’ Night is a patriotic festival celebrated on 25 January, wherever Scots gather together.
First commemorated by the ‘Burns Clubs’ soon after the poet’s death, the evening begins with traditional food, often with a menu written in the poet’s ‘Lallans’ (Lowlands Scots) dialect and sometimes in rhyme. This may include such delicacies as ‘Powsowdie’ (sheep’s head broth); ‘Cabbie-claw’ (dried cod with horseradish and egg sauce) and ‘Finnan toasties’ (smoked haddock). But pride of place goes to the haggis - minced mutton, offal, oatmeal and spices boiled in a sheep’s stomach!
The meal ends with multifarious toasts, followed by patriotic and sentimental speeches, Scottish dancing and performances of Burns’ narrative poems, especially ‘Tam o’ Shanter’ and concluding with everybody linking arms and singing the most famous of them all, ‘Auld Lang Syne’.
The words of ‘Auld lang syne’ which means literally old long since, or ‘long ago’, are:
19 What are the most common superstitions in Britain?
There are many superstitions in Britain, but one of the most widely-held is that it is unlucky to walk under a ladder - even if it means stepping off the pavement into a busy street! If you must pass under a ladder you can avoid bad luck by crossing your fingers and keeping them crossed until you’ve seen a dog. Alternatively, you must lick your finger and make a cross on the toe of your shoe, and not look again at the shoe until the mark has dried.
Another common superstition is that it is unlucky to open an umbrella in the house - it will either bring misfortune to the person that opened it or to the household. Anyone opening an umbrella in fine weather is unpopular, as it inevitably brings rain!
The number 13 is said to be unlucky for some, and when the 13th day of the month falls on a Friday, anyone wishing to avoid an inauspicious event had better stay indoors.
The worst misfortune that can befall
you is incurred by breaking a mirror, as it brings seven years of bad
luck! The superstition is supposed to have originated in ancient times,
when mirrors were considered to be tools of the gods.