On April 23rd, the streets of Barcelona will be deserted like never before.
Even with a change of date, we won’t be seeing images like the one above this year. The Sant Jordi celebration has been moved from its traditional April 23rd to July 23rd as the COVID-19 virus will still have us inside our houses until at least April 26th, with a an extension until mid-May likely to come in the following days.
The celebration of the patron saint of Catalonia, Sant Jordi (in English Saint George), sees millions flock to the streets each year to buy the millions of books and roses offered in stalls all around the city. The largest conglomerations are set up along La Rambla, Passeig de Gràcia, and Rambla de Catalunya. Last year alone 1.64 million books were sold, made up of more than 55,000 titles, accumulating over 22.16 million in sales! That can be anywhere between 5-8% percent of bookkeepers’ yearly total.
The legend of Saint George and it’s connection to Catalonia
The legend of Saint George tells of the town of Montblanc in Tarragona, under siege by a dragon. In order to save the town an offering was made through a lottery system. When the Princess was given up, the King was terribly upset but could do nothing to save her. Enter Saint George. He heroically saves the princes by killing the dragon with his lance and when a rose appears from the dragon’s blood, he bestows it upon her. The celebration of Saint George has ties here as far back as the Middle Ages and even today Montblanc still celebrates a Medieval Week around the holiday.
In the 19th century, Saint George (whose cross forms part of the Barcelona City Flag) became more of a patriotic celebration for Catalan nationalist with roses being sold at stands in the streets. It is still tradition today to give roses to loved ones.
But why the books?
Not many people know this, but April 23rd is actually World Book Day and Copyright Day and has been since 1995 when it was declared so by UNESCO. And it comes from Catalonia!
While it is sad that we won’t be able to celebrate Sant Jordi on April 23rd this year, this actually won’t be the first time the celebration has been postponed. In fact, April 23rd wasn’t even the original date to celebrate with books.
The original idea sprouted in 1923 after the Cervantes Editorial was moved from Valencia to Barcelona and Vicent Clavell Andrés proposed the celebration of the Spanish book. The date in mind was October 7th, the supposed birth date of Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quijote. Google it now, its September 29th.
Under the dictatorship Miguel Primo de Rivera, the idea of a celebration for the Spanish book was something that appealed to the regime, but it would take until February, 1926 for the date to be given the go ahead. Madrid didn’t have the same level of excitement that was created in Barcelona, where a 10% discount was given off the book’s price.
For the first five years, October 7th was the date but in 1930 a change of date was proposed to coincide with better weather and, more importantly, not coincide with the annual selling of text books at the start of the school year. As the first date was Cervantes’ birth date, the idea to use his death date was thrown out. That would also share the date with the patron saint and the selling or roses as we have seen before.
No one could have known at that time that April 23, 1931 would follow the declaration of the Second Republic in Spain. The frenzy created just 10 days before made the day an overwhelming success. It was declared a day off for those working in public offices and the Day of the Catalan Flag. In Catalonia, it became a day for Catalan books. Even today, the amount of books in Catalan sold outweigh the number sold in Spanish, last year 60% vs. 40%, respectively.
The outbreak of the Spanish Civil War would change the dates of the celebration again and up until 1945, many different dates were used to continue a celebration that had already been deemed a Catalan tradition.
And the tradition has only grown
Today, Sant Jordi has become one of Catalonia’s most popular traditions. The April 23rd date not only lies on the date of death of Cervantes, Spain’s most well-known author, but also the date of death of William Shakespeare, arguably the world’s most famous author. Both died April 23, 1616. Now, both Spain and England were on different calendars at the time and there really existed about a 12 day difference between the two.
Barcelona today goes all out each year for the patron saint of the region. Apart from the books and roses, there are all sorts of conventions and speeches, open doors, and book signings from authors from all over the globe.
One of my favorite things in the city are the decorations that adorn the various buildings. The Mansana de la Discòrdia, along the Passeig de Gràcia, is one of the most decorated areas of the city. It’s three modernist buildings all aim to take part of the festivities. The Casa Batlló (owning a façade that tells the legend throughout) more than anybody else puts on its best dress to celebrate the day of Saint George. Roses cover the façade each year to make Barcelona’s most iconic house pop out even more.
On a normal day you will find it looking slightly less lavish. From the top, the roof shows the scales of the dragon’s back with his eye in the small triangular opening to the rights. The tower, with the cross on the left, represents Saint George’s lance. The top middle balcony, in the shape of a flower, offers the lookout view of the princess awaiting rescure. The balconies show the skulls and bones of the victims of the dragon.
One of my favorite things to tell people on any of my Modernist Tours when outside is just how the house gets dressed up for this special day. Obviously this year, we won’t be able to see it, but last year we had a similar problem. What I like to call the best, and most ridiculous, thing that has happened. The Casa Batlló had been covered in scaffolding for the past four months and as April 23rd approached many, including myself were upset we wouldn’t be seeing the roses this year. The nice part about any construction on buildings here is that they normally cover the building in a photo of the façade so you at least get the idea of what you would be seeing. We had been staring at a picture of the Casa Batlló for months and to my surprise when I showed up in front of the building the morning of April 23rd, not expecting much, I was met with this:
And I loved it! Not the same as other years, but it kept with the spirit.
How to celebrate this year
This year we are dealing with much more serious circumstances and the Casa Batlló, in combination with Barcelona Turisme and Barcelona Global, are still trying to keep the spirits up for this special day.
While it’s unfortunate that Thursday won’t have us celebrating like normal, but there are ways we can bring a little bit of the Sant Jordi celebration home. The call to everyone is to decorate their own balconies and share in the experience with the hashtag, #TotsFemSantJordi
The idea is to create roses out of the normal household products and cover our balconies. Ideas range from using egg cartons, yogurt containers, etc. Head over to their website to check out how to decorate their ideas of how to make your own roses and join in on the fun.
Another initiative I absolutely love has bee taken up by the website todostuslibros.com called, Apoya a tu Librería, that allows you to purchase make a donation now that will go towards a book in the future, once they are able to open in the furture. Might be a good idea to decide what book you want to read in July! While we are waiting until July 23rd to really celebrate we can still buy books and read on April 23rd!