Banner photos: Cornelia Kraft
The day that keeps giving
[Photo: Jasar - Granollers]
A man slices a dragon's head off (saving a princess) and he then gives her a rose that is made from the dragon's blood. The End?
No, just the beginning really. The human desire for legends of this sort is legendary but there is a lot more to every April 23, Sant Jordi's Day, than a mythical story.
One-off festival days are only one way to understand a nation's culture and they can sometimes give misleading impressions of a country and it's people's beliefs. Catalonia is not populated by gullible fools who believe in fire-breathing monsters. But Sant Jordi, supposed slayer of the beast, is the nominal “patron saints” of Catalonia (as well as the Aragon region.) Children in schools, including my son, have learnt about him for centuries and this day has evolved into a full-blown commercial event – one that has come to be important for millions of Catalan's and also for some of the people who did not originally start their lives here.
Sant Jordi's Day, or the “dia dels enamorats,” as it is often called, can be literally translated as lover's day, and love in all it's many forms is the reason for the gift-buying then gift-giving that forms a major part of the celebration. Typically, a man presents his girl-friend, wife or mother with a blood-red rose, but they can be bought in yellow and even blue and black and are usually wrapped in plastic along with the Catalan flag and a strand of wheat.
Women (as custom also dictates) will give the main men in their lives a book, though some partners are now starting to buck tradition and sometimes reverse the presents for each other. Overall, it's certainly a less-personal ritual, though a lot simpler, than the agonising and searching that Valentine's Day can bring.
The idea of combining roses with books was started in the 1920's by a Valencian man named Vicente Clavel who was then living in Barcelona.He noticed that both William Shakespeare and Cervantes died on the same day as Sant Jordi was reputed to have finally dreamt the last dream of his former glories.
I asked a number of foreign-born residents of Catalonia for their opinions on Sant Jordi's Day and got a range of responses.
American Mitsi Ito and British-born Zoë Valls both like to join the thousands of locals and enjoy the atmosphere walking up and down the capital's Rambla Catalunya and the Ramblas. Ryan Chandler, editor of Barcelona Ink literary magazine told me “Before, it just meant books for my family and a rose for my wife. Now I seem to spend it looking for stalls which are selling Barcelona INK. I still buy the books though, and the rose seems to have got [more up-market!] In the UK there isn't anything similar although I think they have tried to revive Saint Georges Day by organizing maypole dancing and Morris dancers.”
The emphasis on literature is important to many people. Audrey Reeder, the Headteacher of the Olive Tree School in Sant Pere de Ribes says that Sant Jordi's Day “means celebrating books, which are the mark of a civilized society. Legends and myths such as Saint George and the Dragon are vital in the development of a child’s imagination - and, of course, the rose is a symbol of so many things: beauty, passion, timelessness.” It is her favourite of all the Catalan celebrations but the nationalistic aspect of the day's celebrations does not interest her at all. “Nationalism for me is quite the reverse of civilization!” she says.
A number of others argued that Sant Jordi's Day should be a public holiday, while Italian David de Vidi thinks the day is about “cutting the distance between the sexes” and would like to see the day kept “natural and spontaneous, with no sponsors.” More typically though, it is what people do to mark the occasion that is the focus of their comments.
Simply enjoying the atmosphere is a focus for German teacher Cornelia Kraft. “I usually celebrate this day with a nice lunch and a stroll through the streets afterwards.” Mathilde Arthaud, ayoung French woman, tells me that she and her partner choose to have a nice dinner and exchange the standard Sant Jordi gifts. “Apart from that I love going into town, looking at all the rose shops on the street and taking the opportunity to buy some books for myself. I may also buy a rose for a special girl friend of mine,” she says.
So while Sant Jordi's Day is steeped in tradition and ritual, Catalonia's newest residents have certainly found their own ways to mark the occasion.
[An edited version of this article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, April 2013.]