For Catalans April 23 is a day of many names, including the Dia de la Rosa, the Dia del Llibre and even the Dia dels Amants. But whether you prefer a day of roses, books or lovers (or like to embrace all three), the Diada de Sant Jordi is always a day to remember.
Based on the many myths, legends and reports of Sant Jordi (aka St George), the man who has been Catalunya’s patron saint since the 1500s and a global hero through the ages, this enhanced Valentine’s Day combines the derring-do of a dragon-slaying knight with the romance of a rescued princess.
Sant Jordi’s story is a cracking yarn. When a dastardly dragon terrorises the small village of Montblanc and eats all the livestock, a princess is offered up as a sacrifice. But then a strapping knight rides in to strike a killer blow with his lance and saves her, and the dragon’s blood soaks the ground from which a red rose bush emerges and blooms!
Dramatic stuff indeed, but also undeniably romantic – if we gloss over the dubious lottery system employed in Montblanc to select an unknown roster of lower-status citizens to meet a grisly fate before the princess found her name pulled from the hat and everyone decided that enough was enough.
The enduring message is that an intrepid dragon-slayer rode into town and did what was necessary to keep a princess – and love itself – alive for centuries to come.
In more modern times, due partly to fire-breathing beasts being in comparatively short supply, the dragon-slaying tradition was fine-tuned and the day became about men presenting their significant other with a rose as an indication of their enduring love, and women returning the sentiment with a book.
Nowadays the lines of gender and chivalry have been rightly blurred and you’re as likely to see a man presenting a woman with a book, a woman presenting another woman with a rose, or a son or daughter presenting his or her mother with both.
Regardless of gender, this is a day for embracing love, friendship, and the freedom to get out into the city, rub shoulders with your fellow man, woman and assorted relatives and celebrate all that is good in life.
Relaxing the rules of engagement has brought the sentiment of Sant Jordi’s heroic devotion to the masses, and the ritual of promenading (in relative safety) through streets filled with book and rose stalls, finding the perfect tome or bloom and presenting it with love is one of the most deep-rooted and big-hearted celebrations on the Catalan calendar.
Millions of roses are sold on this single day. You’re more likely to see a dragon in a Messi shirt than walk a city block without seeing a rose clutched in a tight but gentle grasp of anticipation.
The City Council also does its bit to ensure that no prince or princess is forgotten, thanks to the Roses Contra l’Oblit, an initiative that distributes roses to Barcelona’s elderly citizens. Knights of the Internet can even send a virtual rose via Barcelona’s Sant Jordi website and send a message of love across the ether.
This is a festival for all ages and inclinations. While the younger people recreate Sant Jordi’s physical exertions with enthusiastic embraces and families jostle to find the best deal, more sedate older couples stroll by hand in hand, keeping an eye out for a bar keen to proffer a restorative Vermouth.
The more gently energetic might feel moved to join in the Sardana, the Catalan national dance, perhaps to burn off an excess of calories taken on via the decidedly more-ish Coques de Sant Jordi, sweet slabs of joy stacked in every bakery window.
You could even add a fresh angle to the day by searching out all the Sant Jordis in the city, including the 3m bronze statue by Josep Subirachs in the Sagrada Família that marks the 500th anniversary of him becoming the patron saint of Catalunya.
The exploits of Sant Jordi are not exclusively celebrated in Catalunya, but are marked in various ways across various countries and religions across the world, from the Balkans and Greece to the Middle East.
Our brave knight also inspired what is widely known as World Book Day, or more officially the UNESCO World Book and Copyright Day (also on 23 April).
It was on 23 April in the year 303 that Sant Jordi was executed for his religious beliefs and he became a martyr, but literature fans will know that this was also the day in 1616 (more or less, depending on which calendar you were using at the time) on which literary behemoths Shakespeare and Cervantes died.
More than €20 million is spent on books on the Diada de Sant Jordi, providing an impressive boost to Spanish and Catalan publishers as well as the enduring identity of Catalunya and its rich literary traditions. Many famous authors make the most of this uncommon profile to be interviewed and happily sign their works.
Whatever your level of involvement in the day’s festivities, one suspects that Sant Jordi would be delighted to witness how his heroics have inspired thousands of Catalonian citizens to set up stalls along the Ramblas and on just about every street corner and sell roses labelled with messages of love such as t’estimo (I love you).
Wherever you look, you will see a day draped in the golden yellow and red stripes of the Senyera, the official flag of Catalunya. This emblem has its own epic origin story, with foundations in the Kings of Aragon, Catalunya’s neighbouring autonomous Spanish community.
But today it is all about the city celebrating and bringing together every one of its residents with the enthusiasm of a gallant knight who’s spotted an eligible princess and is very keen to swipe right until the competition is vanquished.
Like all the best festivals, the Diada de Sant Jordi is founded in history, myth and legend that merits further study and forms an integral part of this region’s fascinating past and dynamic future.
If you have a big heart and want to add a rich, rosy tinge to your deep appreciation of romance, family and friendship then there’s no better time to stand proud and tall, hit the streets, embrace the object of your affections and share the love.