Saint George’s: One National Day and Two Countries

Borough-MarketSaint George/Sant Jordi is celebrated both in England and Catalonia. Did you know that in Catalonia we say that roses grew from the slayed dragon? 

That is the reason why traditionally men offered roses to women on Sant Jordi’s Day and in exchange for the flowers the women gave books as gifts. Nowadays, both men and women exchange books and roses. This ritual has now become so popular with all generations that 7 million roses and 1.7 million books were sold in Catalonia last year on Sant Jordi’s Day.

A week of national celebrations starts today in London and will run both in England and Catalonia until Sunday.

Tradition in Catalonia

Hard to understand for those who have never experienced it, Saint George’s Day is a popular festive day when book and rose stalls, and, above all, floods of people, take over the streets of all Catalan towns and villages.

sant jordi10The celebration could not be simpler: the ritual consists of going for a walk and buying a rose, a book or both to give to loved ones, family members and friends. Although it is not a public holiday, the day and the essential walk fill the streets and squares, making it a unique national festival celebrated on a working day.

The origin of this unusual festival can be found in a mixture of traditions and customs from different periods. The fact that Saint George (Sant Jordi) is the patron saint of Catalonia (officially since 1456, although he was being venerated as early as the 8th century) coincides with another medieval custom of celebrating a Rose Fair or “Lovers’ Fair” at the Palau de la Generalitat.

To these more traditional celebrations was added Book Day, established throughout Spain in 1926. The literary celebration ended up mixing with the Catalan traditions to create a special day which has won widespread public support.


dragon-roseIt is very difficult to put an exact date which marks the beginning of the popular tradition of giving roses on the day of Sant Jordi. It must be very old as the Rose Fair has been held on the day of Sant Jordi since the 15th century. The age of this tradition tempts us to look for a link between a popular tradition and the symbolism of courtly love which the rose represents, although the custom of giving flowers existed before Christianity and, around April, the Romans used to celebrate a flower festival dedicated to the goddess Flora.

The festival we know today originated in the period of the Diputació del General and is linked to the nobility and the ruling classes who, on Saint George’s Day, held a mass in the chapel of the Palau de la Generalitat, where the Rose Fair we have already mentioned was also held.

The Book day

Rosa i llibreThe Dia del Llibre (the Book Day) is much more recent. According to some sources, it was first held on October 7th 1926.

The original idea came from the Barcelona-based Valencian writer Vicent Clavel Andrés, who proposed it to the Cambra Oficial del Llibre de Barcelona. Shortly afterwards, in 1930, the date was changed to April 23rd, to commemorate the fact that the writers Miguel de Cervantes and William Shakespeare both died on 23 April 1626, although according to different calendars. On April 23rd, other well-known writers such as Josep Pla (1981), Maurice Druon (1918), K. Laxness (1902), Vladimir Nabokov (1899) and Manuel Mejía Vallejo (1923) were also born or died.

amor-librosA quite considerable percentage of annual literary production is sold for Saint George’s Day, a fact the publishing companies take advantage of to present the latest new books, especially those written in Catalan. On November 15th, 1995, at a general conference which took place in Paris, the festival of April 23rd dedicated to literature was declared World Book and Copyright Day by the UNESCO.

St.George’s Day in England

PM2880515IF200413Geor-010The earliest documented mention of St. George in England comes from the venerable Bede (c. 673–735). He is also mentioned in ninth-century liturgy used at Durham Cathedral. The will of Alfred the Great is said to refer to the saint, in a reference to the church of Fordington, Dorset.

At Fordington a stone over the south door records the miraculous appearance of St. George to lead crusaders into battle. Early (c. 10th century) dedications of churches to St. George are noted in England, for example at Fordingham, Dorset, at Thetford, Southwark, and Doncaster. In 1222 The Synod of Oxford declared St. George’s Day a feast day in the kingdom of England. Edward III (1327–1377) put his Order of the Garter (founded c. 1348) under the banner of St. George.

This order is still the foremost order of knighthood in England, and St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle was built by Edward IV and Henry VII in honour of the order. The badge of the Order shows Saint George on horseback slaying the dragon. Froissart observed the English invoking St. George as a battle cry on several occasions during the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453). Certain English soldiers also displayed the pennon of St George. In his play Henry V, William Shakespeare famously invokes the Saint at Harfleur prior to the battle of Agincourt (1415): “Follow your spirit, and upon this charge Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!'” At Agincourt many believed they saw him fighting on the English side.

Relief of Sant Jordi on the roof of the chapel of Sant Jordi of the Palau de la Generalitat.St George’s Day was a major feast and national holiday in England on a par with Christmas from the early 15th century. The Cross of St. George was flown in 1497 by John Cabot on his voyage to discover Newfoundlandand later by Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh. In 1620 it was the flag that was flown by the Mayflower when the Pilgrim Fathers arrived in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

The tradition of celebration St George’s day had waned by the end of the 18th century after the union of England and Scotland. Nevertheless the link with St. George continues today, for example Salisbury holds an annual St. George’s Day pageant, the origins of which are believed to go back to the 13th century. In recent years the popularity of St. George’s Day appears to be increasing gradually. BBC Radio 3 had a full programme of St. George’s Day events in 2006, and Andrew Rosindell, Conservative MP for Romford, has been putting the argument forward in the House of Commons to make St. George’s Day a public holiday. In early 2009, Mayor of London Boris Johnson spearheaded a campaign to encourage the celebration of St. George’s Day. Today, St. George’s day may be celebrated with anything English from morris dancing to a Punch and Judy show. Additional celebrations may involve the commemoration of 23 April as Shakespeare’s birthday/death.

A traditional custom on St George’s day is to wear a red rose in one’s lapel, though this is no longer widely practised. Another custom is to fly or adorn the St George’s Cross flag in some way: pubs in particular can be seen on 23 April festooned with garlands of St George’s crosses. It is customary for the hymn “Jerusalem” to be sung in cathedrals, churches and chapels on St George’s Day, or on the Sunday closest to it. Traditional English food and drink (e.g., afternoon tea) may be consumed (More on Wikipedia).

Anglo-Catalan melting pot in London

Catalan Government, organisations and friends join up once again with London Borough Market to present a festive day of food, arts, roses and books on Sunday 27 April from 12pm to 4pm. Riverside Bookshop will be there for the second year running with a book stall with translations of Catalan literature.

image-1(By Borough Market) St George’s Day has always been a big fixture in the Borough Market calendar and we share the English patron saint with Catalonia, a region close to the heart of cookery writer and Borough demonstration chef, Jenny Chandler. Ahead of her Sant Jordi inspired demo on Friday 25th April, Jenny’s latest blog leads us down the famous La Rambla boulevard to soak up the atmosphere.

April 23rd, St George’s Day, seems to have come and gone with little more than a flutter of the English flag for most of my life. We’re fantastic at festivals, fairs and pageantry in England and yet our poor old patron saint seemed to be left out in the cold for decades. Today, Borough Market celebrates in style (on Sunday 27th this year) and countrywide the morris dancers and town criers seem to be coming out of the wood work; hog roasts, cider drinking and even the odd bit of Medieval style jousting are on the up, at last.

In Catalonia (where St. George is also the patron saint) it’s another story, La Diada de Sant Jordi has always been a big day. When Sant Jordi killed his dragon (and the locals in the medieval town of Montblanc in southern Catalonia will happily show you the spot) a red rose sprang from the ground where the blood was spilled. Then the story goes that the saint plucked the rose and gallantly gave it to the trembling princess he’d just rescued from certain death. Today it’s the custom for men to give loved ones a red rose; it’s a kind of local Valentine’s Day that has yet to be hijacked by card companies and chocolate shops.

It’s National Book day too; it turns out that Shakespeare, Cervantes (creator of Don Quijote) and the famous Catalan writer, Josep Pla, all died on the 23rd of April. Trestle tables piled with books, and decked in the yellow and red stripes of the Catalan flag, line the streets. Ladies traditionally buy a book for their men although, with a bit of feminism kicking in (go girls!), most of the chaps are wise to snap up a book for their sweetheart too.

So, you’ll have to elbow your way through street performers, stalls, crowds, books and roses along Barcelona’s tree-lined Rambla to reach the city’s gem of a market the Boqueria, (twinned with Borough Market since 2006) but what to buy today? There’s no particular feast associated with the saint’s day but there are certainly plenty of seasonal treats.

The moixeron or bolet de San Jordi (St George’s mushroom) is the obvious, and wonderfully tasty, place to start. These wild mushrooms are weather dependent of course, but you could be in luck and Llorenç Petras tucked away at the back of the market is the place to go (or Turnips if you happen to be back home at Borough).

Throw some of these into a fricandóthe traditional rose-veal stew which gets finished off with a picadaof ground almonds, parsley and garlic.

 The Catalans are big on nuts; almonds and hazelnuts play a role in the region’s fabulousromesco sauce. We’re getting to the end of the calçot season (those fabulously charred mini leek/spring onions) but the seasonal salad of curly endive, tuna, anchovies and black olives is superb with the sauce too. (More on The Borough Market Blog)

One thought on “Saint George’s: One National Day and Two Countries

  1. Pingback: Dragons, Roses, Books, Festivals… is Saint George’s | AC

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