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Lovers And Martyrs: Saint George’s Day in Catalonia

Saint George, a Roman knight and Christian, is commemorated alongside literature and love every April 23rd.

The exterior of Casa Batlló on Sant Jordi's Day in Barcelona.
This year, over 7 million roses were expected to be sold for Saint George's Day, only 55,000 of which were grown in Catalonia. The majority are imported from Columbia and Ecuador. Credit: Anna-Maya Pawlowski

The Catalan equivalent to Valentine’s Day, Saint George’s Day, or Sant Jordi’s Day, doesn’t demand an expensive showering of high-end perfumes and extravagant bouquets. What occurs is an honorable exchange of a rose for a book.

“In Catalonia, we don’t say ‘the best day of the year,’ we say ‘Sant Jordi’ and I think that’s beautiful.” This is the sentence flooding Instagram stories on Saint George’s Day.

April 23 is a day for lovers inspired by martyrs — such is the nature of many love-related myths. Like Valentine, St. George challenged authority and is linked to legends. Not only was he executed in the name of Christianity, but he also slayed a dragon. And a combination of the Crusades, UNESCO declarations, Cervantés, and Shakespeare led to chivalry and World Book Day being celebrated on the same date.

Who was Saint George?

An image of Saint George stabbing the dragon from atop his horse.
St. George is the patron saint of Catalonia, Portugal, England, and other nations and autonomous communities. Credit: Shutterstock/Vuk Kostic

It depends on who you ask. The most accepted, albeit murky, facts of his life include Lydda (modern-day Lod, Israel) being his birthplace, a role in the Roman army, and Emperor Diocletian torturing and beheading him for his steadfast refusal to relinquish his Christian beliefs in favor of the Olympians.

What you read about St. George can be found in either books of the Church or medieval manuscripts. The latter has been labeled as apocryphal versions. According to The Passion of St George, Diocletian “ordered him to be held down, and instructed his head be crushed with an iron mallet so that his brain came out through his nostrils” and “his helmet pierced with spikes.”

In the Middle Ages, more fabled stories spread about his bravery and the supposed helping hand he gave to soldiers on the battlefield, eventually making him a symbol of patriotism. One of the tales that truly stuck was of a dragon and a girl—essentially, the fairy-tale fountainhead of Catalonia’s Sant Jordi’s Day.

Blood bleeds roses

People walking along Passeig de Gràcia on Saint George's Day.
On St. George’s Day, studying subjects is replaced by writing competitions and swapping used books with classmates in school. Credit: Anna-Maya Pawlowski

This story takes place in Silene (now Libya), or Montblanc, Tarragona if you’re following Catalan tradition. It’s a thriller featuring death by lottery and ends with a handsome kill.

Once upon a time, a town was under the figurative rule of a fearful dragon. To appease the creature, the villagers gave him one sheep per day. And when there was nothing left of the flock, children were sacrificed instead. Like most lore, the agreement was accepted until one day, royalty took a hit when the king’s daughter was selected. Enter the gallant and knightly St. George…

He rode in on his steed and stabbed the dragon with his sword—the princess was saved. But from the creature’s spilled drops of blood, a rosebush grew. St. George picked the most beautiful one and offered it to the rescued princess. Thus, a chivalrous act worth repeating was born.

Modernist interpretations

The windows of Casa Batlló in Barcelona decorated for St. George's Day.
For the first time ever, after the 2024 festivities, the roses used to decorate Casa Batlló could be purchased by the public. Credit: Anna-Maya Pawlowski

Throughout Catalan history, St. George was added to battle stories which earned him a mythical reputation as a warrior saint. And his decision to kill the dragon later found its place in the independence movement.

After the War of Spanish Succession (1714), St. George’s Day celebrations were banned. However, the Catalan Cultural Renaissance, “La Renaixença”, in the 19th century saw the rebirth of old customs during which the commemoration of Catalonia’s patron saint was reinstated — making him an unequivocal symbol of Catalan nationalism.

If you want to grasp the influence of the myth involving the dragon on Catalan culture, just look at Antoni Gaudí’s Casa Battló in Barcelona.

The thin grooves strengthening its facade are believed to mirror the digested bones of the sacrificed children.

A roof tiled with purple ceramic scales catches the sun, and the interior is an anatomical sketch mapping the lizard-like animal’s spine as a hardwood spiral stairwell — the rest of its skeleton outlined throughout the ergonomic design.

Its innocent terror set in rainbow colors and balconies decorated with red roses, and the yellow-and-red flag pierced through its stone wall are the fantastical and architectural images at the heart of Catalonia’s culture.

“And yet the books”

In 1995, touched by Catalonia’s annual tradition of giving sweethearts a single rose in memory of St. George, UNESCO officially declared April 23rd World Book and Copyright Day.

It not only falls on the date of the brave saint’s death but also, rather conveniently, on that of two titans of literature — Cervantes and Shakespeare.

Today, the feast day is a marriage between books and flowers. Stories and romance.

St. George’s Day in Barcelona

Locals gathered together at La plaza de la Vila de Gràcia.
There is only one company left in Catalonia producing flowers for St. George’s Day. Credit: Anna-Maya Pawlowski

On famed streets such as Passeig de Gràcia and La Rambla, it’s impossible to move.

Even though it means walking behind sudden stoppers, having to rise above careless shoulder bumping, and dodging the self-proclaimed photographers holding iPhones, people don’t mind. They want to visit the hundreds of stalls selling books and flowers, and to hold up their own roses, nonchalantly yet proudly, in the company of other loved-up couples.

Festive bodies build human towers, the Sardana is danced, and live music is scheduled. International and local authors appear for book signings. In addition, some engage in “Dialogues” — meetings in several Barcelona libraries, including the award-winning Biblioteca Gabriel García Márquez, for stimulating discussions.

Concluding with an increased awareness

A couple admiring a rose in front of a stall selling books.
A record high of booksellers and florists applying for a stall (over 435 stands) in Barcelona was recorded this year. Credit: Anna-Maya Pawlowski

Bakeries, offices, hairdressers, and clothes stores display red on St. George’s Day. Makeshift tables are mounted on the lesser-known streets where you might find Anne Frank’s Diary lying next to a copy of Frankenstein.

It might be the 20-year-old man picking a last-minute flower from a single bucket at a stand on the sidewalk. Or preordered long-stemmed roses ready for collection. And it could also be children walking home from school after a day of reading and writing short stories. But on this day, once a year, cities and towns all over Catalonia pause for literature and love.

Written By

Hi there! My name is Anna-Maya and I'm from Ireland. After graduating from Trinity College Dublin with a degree in English Studies, I moved to Barcelona to discover a different pace of life. Writing, good company, food, and travel, in that order, form my list of priorities.

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