The red roses had popped up all over town by Friday evening.
Young men selling these centuries-old proclamations of love, individually wrapped with the red and yellow stripes of the Catalan flag, began appearing on street corners and roundabouts. Gas stations temporarily added to their stock book stands with recent best-sellers and buckets full of roses. The first signs of Barcelona preparing for its annual Sant Jordi celebration, the Valentine’s Day equivalent in Catalonia, looked a little like the Hallmark bombardment of hearts and chocolate at American grocery stores in February. But with a more literary spin.
“It’s the most beautiful day of the year, without a doubt,” said Noa Torner, 35, a Barcelona native. “Everyone always comes out, they’re all happy, smiling.”
La Diada de Sant Jordi (“Saint George’s Day” in English) is observed every April 23 across towns and cities in Catalonia — the northeast region of Spain that boasts of a deep-rooted identity and its own language. It celebrates the patron saint of Catalonia who, according to legend, defeated a dragon and freed the village’s princess (but, ironically enough, didn’t marry her). In a tradition that dates back to the 15th century, a red rose is given to women on this day, symbolism for the bloodshed of the menacing dragon. And since the 1920s, when Spain declared April 23 Book Day, this tradition has merged with the celebration of literature, since it coincidentally falls on the death anniversary of Shakespeare and near that of Miguel de Cervantes, Spain’s most famous author, who wrote “Don Quixote.” In return for the rose, women began presenting men with a book.
Today, the once far-fetched idea that women also enjoy literature has been embraced. Lovers, friends and family members exchange both a rose and a book.
“It’s the recognition of our Catalan culture and the recognition of love,” said Torner. “And, also, you could say, of our love for our culture.”
Hundreds of stands selling roses and books popped up all over Barcelona’s neighborhoods on Sant Jordi, which fell on a Sunday this year. The Ramblas, the city’s famous pedestrian street, was tightly packed with both locals and tourists constantly stopping to eye new and used books. Red roses were seen sprinkled throughout the crowd, sticking out of bags or held in people’s hands. There were book signings by Spanish and Catalan authors. Organizations focusing on immigrants’ rights and women’s issues took the opportunity to sell merchandise and raise money for their respective causes. There was even a stand where people could “try on hijabs” and learn about Islam.
No matter what day of the week Sant Jordi falls on, it’s guaranteed to draw a big crowd. Most Catalans say that’s the fun part of the holiday: Businesses are relaxed about their employees coming in late or leaving the office early. Schools organize poetry contests for their students and plan field trips to the city center to browse book stands.
“There’s just something floating in the air,” said Marina Closas, 75, another Barcelona native. “The best part is coming out here early, while the stands are still setting up. You can smell the flowers as you walk up the Ramblas, since there aren’t as many people crowding up the street.”
Closas remembers what it was like celebrating this Catalonia-centric holiday during the Francoist dictatorship — which lasted from the late 1930s to the late 1970s — a period when Francisco Franco enacted repressive measures that abolished Catalan institutions and banned the official use of the language. She says the holiday was still tolerated but lacked the Catalan pride it usually carried. They couldn’t sell books in Catalan, for example, or any publications that hadn’t passed through the government’s censorship process. Despite this, many Catalans risked punishment by setting up clandestine book stands and covering them up whenever the police walked by.
Lourdes Oliveras, 53, who grew up in a small town 20 miles from Barcelona, said she wasn’t allowed to celebrate Sant Jordi while Franco was in power.
“We gave each other roses, but we didn’t have the celebration we have today,” said Oliveras. “After the dictatorship, it started up again with more strength and pride.”
It’s no coincidence that this literary holiday is revered in Barcelona. The Catalan city has been the publishing capital of the Spanish-speaking world for the past five centuries. Even as far back as the Middle Ages, before the printing press, Barcelona possessed a “complete literary ecosystem” where religious and legal works circulated the city.
“We’ve been editing books for 500 years nonstop,” said Marià Marin Torné of the Publishers’ Guild of Catalonia, one of Europe’s oldest guilds, which was founded in the 16th century. They organize the Sant Jordi festivities every year.
“For an entire day, the city breathes and lives literature,” he said. “It encompasses the type of place we want to be: free, intelligent and cultured.”
The guild brings together almost 300 publishers that put out over 30,000 titles a year, all of whom, according to Torné, took part in the celebrations this year. And as the book industry faces challenges with new technologies and shifts in reading habits, this fomentation of literature comes at the perfect time. In 1995, UNESCO declared April 23 World Book Day and, exactly 20 years later, included Barcelona in its Creative Cities Network as a City of Literature.
“Sant Jordi is a celebration that’s never going to end; it’s not going anywhere,” said Torner, the 35-year-old Barcelonan on the Ramblas, as she held a book and spoke to her mother in Catalan. “It’s too ours.”