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As the Catalan saying goes: “Bon Sant Jordi i Santa Creu, hi haurà vi per tot arreu” (“Happy Sant Jordi and Santa Creu, there will be wine everywhere”). This pretty much sums up the sense of joy associated with one of the biggest celebrations of the Catalan calendar—la Diada de Sant Jordi. Jordi is the patron saint of Catalunya and the anniversary of his death on April 23rd is the Catalan equivalent of Valentine’s Day.
As well as having their own lovers’ day, Catalans also have a unique way of celebrating it: men buy their loved ones a rose and women give a book. Although it is not a public holiday, there is a festive atmosphere throughout the region as crowds of people, young and old alike, throng streets filled with stalls selling books and roses.
So who was Sant Jordi (Saint George in English), and why did Catalunya—as well as countries and cities as diverse as England, Ethiopia, Istanbul and Venice among others—choose to adopt him as their patron saint?
It is widely accepted that Jordi was a Roman Christian soldier from a noble family who was tortured and beheaded in Palestine on April 23rd, 303 CE, after speaking out against Emperor Diocletian’s persecution of Christians. It is perhaps because of his high-ranking status that Sant Jordi, from among thousands of martyrs, became so universally popular in the Middle Ages. For instance, more than once during the Crusades, the Christians credited their victories to his miraculous intercession: first, when he is said to have appeared at the 1098 battle of Antioch; and in the 12th century, when the troops of Richard the Lionheart were battling the Saracens—it was as a result of this supernatural assistance that George became the patron saint of England.
In his classic 1952 book about local customs, Costumari Català, ethnologist Joan Amades attributed the saint’s popularity in Catalunya to the fact that the widespread veneration of Jordi coincided with the period when the country was at the height of its prosperity. Sant Jordi is said to have appeared at crucial moments in Catalan history, such as the conquest of Barcelona by Count Borrell at the beginning of the ninth century. In addition, in 1094, after invoking Sant Jordi to help him win a battle against Zaragoza’s Arab king Almocaben, King Pere I of Aragó named him patron of the Catalan cavalry and nobility. More than 350 years later, in 1456, Sant Jordi’s place at the heart of the nation was confirmed when the Catalan government consecrated him as patron, naming the anniversary of his death as a holy day for Barcelona.
It was the legend of Sant Jordi and the dragon, however, which really captured the imagination of the people. Published in 1483, The Golden Legend (originally Leggenda Aurea) by Italian Jacobus de Voragine, told how the knight saved a princess from being eaten by a dragon. Although the original story took place in Libya, the Catalan version places it in Montblanc in the province of Tarragona. In a unique twist, this version tells how, after Sant Jordi killed the dragon, roses grew from where the creature’s blood had spilled to the ground. From these, Jordi chose the best flowers to give to the princess, thereby earning himself a reputation as the patron of chivalry.
In 1667, the Roman Catholic Church officially adopted Sant Jordi as the patron saint of Catalunya, declaring April 23rd a religious holiday. However, in 1714, after the War of Spanish Succession, Catalunya lost its independence and became part of the Spanish state —a move that prevented public celebrations dedicated to the saint. Sant Jordi made a comeback during the Catalan cultural renaissance of the 19th century, when he became a nationalist symbol. In a symbolic reading of the medieval legend, the princess came to represent the Catalan nation, the dragon the enemy and Sant Jordi the knight who would rescue Catalunya from the Spanish invader.
The origin of the tradition of giving a rose on Sant Jordi’s day is thought to date back to around 1840 when a Fira dels Enamorats (Lovers’ Fair) was first held in the courtyard of the Palau of the Generalitat in Barcelona. It was called the Lovers’ Fair because it was popular with engaged couples and newlyweds: men would present their partner with a bouquet of roses. Around this time too, roses started being given to young women leaving church after mass on Sant Jordi’s day.
Nowadays on Sant Jordi, people hang the Catalan striped yellow-and-red senyera flag from their windows and roses are tied with ribbons of yellow and red. Often, an ear of wheat is also entwined with the roses that are presented, in recognition of Sant Jordi’s role as the patron of field workers; his name comes from the Greek for ‘one who works the earth’.
The tradition of giving a book on Sant Jordi’s day began when the annual Day of the Book—first held on October 7th, 1926 in memory of Miguel de Cervantes on the day once thought to be his birthday—was moved to April 23rd in 1930. As well as falling on Sant Jordi’s day, the new date was also the anniversary of the death of both Cervantes and William Shakespeare in 1616.
The new festival quickly took root and became absorbed into the existing Sant Jordi day celebrations when, with the passing of time, people started to exchange a rose for a book. This tradition survived the Franco dictatorship, when books in Catalan could not be published, and in 1995, inspired by Catalunya’s festival, UNESCO named April 23rd as World Book and Copyright Day.
It is perhaps fitting that a man whose story is the stuff of legends became so associated with the world of books. And with its combined elements of courage and chivalry, it is no surprise that the story of Jordi captured the hearts of more than just one nation.
- Every year, the town of Montblanc holds a medieval week commemorating the legend of Sant Jordi. www.setmanamedieval.org
- In Barcelona, the Palau de la Generalitat and Catalan Parliament open their doors to visitors on April 23rd. See the Generalitat website for more information: www.gencat.cat/catalunya/santjordi/eng/
Please note that this article was first published in the sister magazine of Barcelona Metropolitan, Costa Brava Resident