¡Feliz Sant Jordi!
I wish Britain could adopt Catalunya’s joyful celebration of love and literature
Every April 23rd, the streets of Barcelona fill with crowds jostling to buy books and get them signed. For anyone accustomed to the lacklustre British World Book Night celebrations (also today, World Book Day in March being a children’s event), the countless bookstalls, carnival atmosphere and sheer number of people are eye-popping.
I’m afraid I hadn't realised that books could draw such crowds in the age of Netflix and smartphones. Shame on me! Turns out people still really like books, and will queue for ages to meet their favourite authors – who receive rock-star treatment on this spectacular annual feast day, which is postponed for obvious reasons this year.
To Catalans, the feats of Sant Jordi (St George) is like St Valentine’s Day and World Book Day rolled into one, as people exchange roses and books with loved ones. The origins of the romantic element are murky, as St George doesn’t even get the girl, despite saving her from the dragon.
In 1995 UNESCO declared 23rd April World Book and Copyright Day, as it marks the anniversary of the deaths of Miguel de Cervantes, William Shakespeare and Inca Garcilaso de la Vega – an illustrious trio. In an uncanny coincidence, Shakespeare and Cervantes even died on the same date – 23rd April 1616 – although Shakespeare’s death was actually ten days later, because Spain used the Gregorian calendar and England the Julian calendar at the time.
It just so happened that the feast of Sant Jordi fell on the same day, and gradually the two traditions – roses and books, love and literature – became intertwined. Now it’s an unmissable event in Catalunya’s cultural calendar, and a crucial date for the book trade, which shifts a staggering number of copies that day every year. In 2019, the region's total revenues from Sant Jordi book sales came to almost 22.2 million euros.
Of all the intriguing, eccentric, heartwarming and hedonistic traditions I encountered during my two years living in Barcelona – from scatological nativity scenes to springtime calçotadas – Sant Jordi is, to me, the most magical. The dragon-slaying patron saint also creates a neat English-Catalan link that's somewhat classier than the one forged by the millions of British revellers that flood Barcelona every summer. They go, for better or worse, because Barcelona is a city that can transform even the solitary love of literature into a vibrant, euphoric street party. It’s sad to think of its empty carrers today, but I’m sure everyone is celebrating however they can – as am I from afar.