On April 23rd, la Diada de Sant Jordi, Barcelonais at its best, sort of like a child dressed up and behooved to behave for a special occasion. In the streets radiating out from Plaça Catalunya, tables draped in Catalonia’s red and yellow striped flag are stacked with books. Today, more tomes will be sold in Catalonia than in the rest of the year combined.
The books compete for attention with buckets of roses in every color imaginable–hand-dyed blue and red (for Barça fans) and rainbow, in addition to traditional red) and smaller stands hawking rose-shaped jewelry and all manner of St. Jordi-inspired sweets. Gypsy women weave in and out of the thick mess of people, calling “Rosas, 3 euros” and holding up wilting flowers with a flourish.
Roses for Sale on Sant Jordi
Older couples stroll from stand to stand, shelling out for a yellow rose here and perhaps picking up a red one (free with a book purchase) next door. But it’s Sant Jordi, so the white-haired rose vendor doesn’t frown at the young booksellers giving away what she’s working so hard to sell. Of course she doesn’t exactly beam at them with encouragement, either, but perhaps since they’re only giving away red roses, (much smaller than hers), she feels mollified.
Sant Jordi is Catalonia’s very literary answer to Valentine’s Day, wherein couples gaze longingly into each other’s eyes and exchange roses and books, but here I am, my mother-in-law Rosa’s arm tucked into mine, trying to navigate the crowds without losing track of her or my husband, Jesus, a half-pace behind us.
Sant Jordi and the (Papier Mache) Dragon
I smile to myself, thinking. If Jesus is St. George, and I’m the princess, does that make his mother the dragon?
Rosa catches my smile and raises her eyebrows at me “Qué?” What?
“I’m just happy” I answer her, as I peer out into the multitude, at people of all ages clutching books and roses. Because it’s true, I am.
I trade a few euros for a crimson bloom at a stand complete with a papier mache dragon and a young man dressed up as St. George and pass it to Rosa. “A rose for a rose” I tell her in Spanish, clasping her hand tightly, momentarily, and then letting it go again.
Jesus taps me on the shoulder and stifles my “what” with a kiss. He cups his hands around my ear and whispers “thank you.” I smile wider and I wonder…what if we’ve got the story wrong, and the princess saved St. George and the Dragon?
About La Diada de Sant Jordi: Sant Jordi, or Saint George, is Catalonia’s patron saint. George is a busy saint, and as such is the patron of many countries across Europe and the Middle East (England, Egypt, Russia, and Greece, among others).
According to tradition, Sant Jordi was a Roman Soldier from Syria Palestina that was martyred (tortured and then beheaded) by the Roman Emperor Diocletian when he would not renounce his Christian faith. His suffering and sacrifice inspired the Empress Alexandra to convert to Christianity (and meet a similar fate).
Where the legend and the dragon come in: Thought to have been brought back by crusaders, the legend of Saint George is a symbolic tale for Christians. Saint George is himself, and the dragon that he slays represents Satan and the Roman Empire. The young maiden he saves symbolizes Alexandra, the emperor’s wife.
Roses for Sale on St. Jordi
Sant Jordi in Catalonia: The long-standing tradition was for men to give roses to their sweethearts on La Diada, but in 1923, a clever bookseller started promoting the idea of women returning the favor and giving their men a book for the holiday, which also coincides with the death dates for William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes, and has been declared World Book and Copyright Day by UNESCO. Over the course of time (when locals decided it was acceptable for women to read and men to love flowers) the exchange of books and roses by both partners became more typical.
Copyright 2010-2012 Chris Ciolli, Midwesterner Abroad. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce texts or images without written consent.
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