Susan Rice: St Andrew’s is a day well worth celebrating

Pupils from St Andrews Primary, Cumbernauld. Picture: Bill Fleming
Pupils from St Andrews Primary, Cumbernauld. Picture: Bill Fleming
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With bit more purpose behind it, 30 November could be a big occasion like Thanksgiving, writes Susan Rice

When I first moved to Scotland, fifteen years ago, one of our boxes contained a diorama. It depicted native Americans and pilgrims coming together to give thanks for those who survived that first year. One of my children had made it in school the previous Thanksgiving. We still have it.

Not long after, one of them came home from school and asked what special holidays they would celebrate here. I didn’t know then that there was something called St Andrew’s Day. So I had no answer.

As an American, I was brought up with national holidays and, while I knew that St Andrew was Scotland’s patron saint, I hadn’t at that time seen Scots breaking out the bunting or having a party each 30 November. Or seen that elsewhere in the UK.

My children didn’t come home with stories or symbols of St Andrew’s Day as a celebration, yet Scottish history is an important part of the curriculum, and the story of St Andrew of course has a big place in that history. The story was there, but not the modern activity of celebration.

I became aware of St Andrew’s Day myself as I developed links with some cultural institutions which base events around St Andrew’s Day.

Earlier this week, I ­co-hosted the National Galleries of Scotland’s annual St Andrew’s Day dinner. I first attended this dinner some years ago and that prompted me to find out about St Andrew’s Day.

Today, there are undoubtedly more examples of celebrating the holiday in Scotland and beyond. It’s a public holiday, albeit one that not everyone takes, but times have definitely moved on.

Now, far be it from me, an American, to lecture Scots on how to have fun – Hogmanay and Burns Night spring to mind – but I wonder whether we could give some greater texture to this special day.

In North America, a number of national holidays commemorate individuals important in their country’s history. In America – Washington, Lincoln, Martin Luther King. In some respects, they are really the equivalent of what we call bank holidays in the UK – with days off work and out of school, and a parade or a party. At the same time, each holiday has a story behind it; they stand for something.

I suspect that if you polled Americans about their most cherished holiday, many would say Thanksgiving. Typically celebrated by a large turkey dinner with traditional accompaniments, space at the table is often made for guests who are away from home.

It’s a redemptive holiday, if I use that word correctly. Originally a celebration of a successful harvest, it focuses on survival (of the pilgrims) against the onslaught of natural forces like climate and disease. And celebrates their courage, their mutual support, their vision. It’s intentionally secular today, and therefore works for people of all persuasions. It’s not linked to the celebrity of a named individual. Yet it’s cherished by every American I ever knew. And proof that a big holiday can take hold at one of the most dreich times of the year.

The traditions and history behind these holidays are taught in schools from the earliest years. They have visual manifestations – for Thanksgiving, the horn of plenty, and the turkey and pumpkin pie. They become part of the national psyche from a very early age.

That brings me back to St Andrew’s Day. It wouldn’t be hard to use it to draw out stories about the remarkable part this country has played in shaping the modern world. Maybe we need something which harkens back to a fine Scots tradition, which has probably never been more relevant than it is today – philanthropy.

In doing that, I looked back at my home country for inspiration. After all, the world’s first Society of Saint Andrew was formed in Charleston, South Carolina on 30 November, 1729. Founded by immigrant Scots, the society was dedicated to the relief of suffering among inhabitants of the infant colony. That’s the kind of purpose that can pull people together.

A national day reflecting on how we help the less privileged and those in need of support could provide a kind of common purpose. It would be true to the roots of the celebration but also offer the world a view of this country as welcoming, supportive and concerned. Celebrating a national day mustn’t be about drawing in on ourselves – I think it should be about opening the door so the rest of the world can understand who we are and what we stand for.

And I don’t agree with those who say St Andrew’s Day falls at the wrong time of the year. Yes – it’s dark, cold and often wet. But Thanksgiving is in late November, when the weather can be pretty stark.

Even with a serious purpose, it doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy ourselves too. The first St Andrew’s Ball was held in Montreal in 1816. According to a newspaper report at the time; “The dancing commenced about seven o’clock and continued with great spirit til after midnight, when the company, to the number of about 130, sat down to a sumptuous and elegant supper. After supper the dancing continued with much vivacity till five o’clock.”

Maybe we’ll also need an extra holiday – another day off – to recover.

• Lady Susan Rice is managing director of Lloyds Banking Group Scotland.

For more information about the history of St Andrew and what’s on this weekend go to