A true expression of Catalonia’s romantic side (and one of the most ingenious schemes created by the city’s publishing industry!) La Diada de Sant Jordi is Barcelona’s very own version of Valentine’s Day. More than any other event on the calendar, it demonstrates the city’s eccentricity, uniqueness, love of letters and literature. Here we explain how Barcelona ended up putting a whole new spin on the medieval legend of Sant Jordi.
Roses and revelry – the history of Sant Jordi
Celebrations of Barcelona’s patron, Sant Jordi (Saint George) date back centuries. This surprisingly versatile figure was a Roman soldier, Christian martyr, dragon slayer and model of medieval chivalry, all rolled into one. Indeed, as a patron, Sant Jordi is a great multi-tasker – lending his protection to lots of nations and cities throughout the world.
In the Catalan version of the popular myth surrounding Sant Jordi, he slays a dragon and rescues a princess, and a rose is said to have blossomed from the creature’s blood. These are the origins of the tradition of women receiving roses, which still exists today. Every year on 23 April Barcelona’s main thoroughfares are awash with hawkers and flower stalls and by the evening you’re unlikely to see a woman in the city without a rose in her hand.
However the celebration itself has largely moved beyond the veneration of its namesake thanks to an entrepreneurial brainwave of one Barcelona bookseller.
A publisher’s ploy
In 1923 Vincet Claver Andres felt that people weren’t buying enough books. He also noticed that St George’s Day coincided with the almost simultaneous deaths of William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes on 23 April 1616. Since then the practice of men giving roses to women was matched by women returning the favour with a book.
Andres’ scheme has to be one of the most successful of its kind in history – wander around Barcelona on the Dia de Sant Jordi and you’ll find Las Ramblas crammed with book stalls. It’s estimated that at least 400,000 books are bought on this day, constituting 10% of Catalonia’s annual book sales.
Barcelona is the publishing capital of the Spanish-speaking world. In many ways La Diada de Sant Jordi has become a celebration of this status. In fact, the literary credentials represented in this event received the ultimate accolade when UNESCO named 23 April World Book and Copyright Day in 1995.
What else happens on Sant Jordi Day?
But Sant Jordi Day is far more than a book festival – it’s also a celebration of Catalan language and identity. If you visit the city on this day, you’ll see it ablaze with the ubiquitous red and gold Catalan flag, along with Sant Jordi bread streaked with a trademark red ‘sobrassada’ pâté which is sold in local bakeries. Across the city you’ll find people reciting works of literature, authors signing books, and Catalans offering free language lessons in their native tongue.
Plaça de Sant Jaume is the centre of all the action. Here you’ll be able to watch and maybe even join in with the sardana, the Catalan national dance. The seat of the Catalan government, the Palau de la Generalitat, is decked out in red roses on one of the few days on which it is open to the public. All of these ingredients serve to make La Diada de Sant Jordi the most unique event on Barcelona’s calendar.