by Carter Harrington
A sea of red roses flooded Plaça Sant Jaume (Saint Jame’s Plaza). Every so often the crowd would shift, the violinist’s song would fade, and an island piled with books would appear.
To my left, a young man handed a rose wrapped at the stem in yellow and gold ribbon, the colors of the Catalan flag, to a girl blushing just about as red as the rose she received. The girl then reached into her purse and pulled out a small package, tightly wrapped in a red cloth and bound by yellow ribbon, and handed it to the boy. The package contained a small novel written in Spanish.
Outsiders commonly refer to this day as Catalonia’s Valentine’s Day, but to the locals it is known as Sant Jordi’s Day or la Diada de Sant Jordi. It is a celebration of love, as well as knowledge. Roses are gifted to individuals as a symbol of all types of love: a boy could give his mother a rose, a lover could do the same to his, or her significant other. The exchanging of roses dates back to the 15th century.
Much like many traditions firmly rooted in our society, we know very little of their origins. There are many legends surrounding la Diada de Sant Jordi, but perhaps the most common legend describes how Sant Jordi defeated a dragon. This particular dragon had taken control of a village, and in order to appease him, every so often the villagers would sacrifice a lamb and a virgin, chosen by random lottery. One day, the princess of the village was chosen as the virgin. Just in time, however, Sant Jordi rode in on a white horse and killed the dragon with his lance. From the dragon’s spilled blood grew a red rose, which the saint plucked and handed to the princess.
Sant Jordi has been revered all throughout Catalonia for many centuries. However, it wasn’t until the 15th century that people would gather in the Plaça Sant Jaume to purchase roses from the large rose market, and gift them to their loved ones. The gifting of books was not a part of the celebration until much later. It wasn’t until 1930 that the 23rd of April officially became the Day of the Book, which also coincided with one day after the anniversary of the death of one of Spain’s most famous writers: Miguel de Cervantes.
To this day, you can find the vestiges of Sant Jordi’s importance around the city: his statue sits above the archway on the palace of the Government of Catalonia, and Casa Batlló, a house not too far from the center, designed by Gaudi, has a roof meant to resemble a dragon. Sant Jordi’s tales are even heard being told to children. For several years the day of the books stood in the shadow of the day of roses. However, over the years, the public began to accept that April 23rd, the day of Sant Jordi, was not only a day for roses and love, but also a day for books and culture.