Of Books and Roses: Sant Jordi’s Day in Catalunya

By Martha Tennent and Maruxa Relaño Tennent

The bustling, cosmopolitan port city of Barcelona, favored by travelers the world over for its Mediterranean climate, innovative architecture, and avant-garde cuisine, also happens to be the publishing capital for the Spanish-speaking world of some 500 million people. It is home to the big players in the industry, as well as to a thriving network of small, successful publishing houses, many of which publish in Catalan, the language spoken in this staunchly nationalistic region of Spain.

It is only fitting, then, that Catalunya claims as its own invention World Book Day, an international celebration of book culture that is gaining traction worldwide. Here the celebration falls yearly on April 23rd, and it is steeped in legend and carries an old-world name: Sant Jordi (the Catalan version of Saint George). This is the day when people exchange roses and books.

The story of Sant Jordi, patron saint of Catalunya, has been adapted by many countries as part of their own folklore. A mixture of pagan and Christian traditions, it involves a fourth-century Roman saint who is said to have saved a princess from the jaws of an evil dragon. According to the Catalan version, on the spot where the dragon was slain in the town of Montblanc, a rose grew.

The date carries a dense symbolic significance. Since the Middle Ages, April 23rd has been the Catalan version of Valentine’s Day. To commemorate both the day the saint died in 303 and the ancient Festival of Roses signaling the arrival of spring, lovers have exchanged roses.

Where do books enter? In 1926, the Spanish government designated the date as National Book Day to coincide with the death of Miguel de Cervantes in 1616. The merging of the saint, the book, and the rose has made it the most esteemed of Catalan festivities. It is certainly a very important day for the publishing industry, representing as much as 7% of total annual sales. Prestigious Catalan book prizes, the Sant Jordi and the Josep Pla, are awarded a few months previously in order to take advantage of the date. Catalan nationalism is ever present: yellow-and-red-striped flags stream from balconies. When purchasing a book, “people usually favor Catalan authors,” says Joan Flores, a bookseller at La Central, perhaps the most distinguished independent book store in Barcelona.

Thousands of people take to the streets to search the stalls, standing in long lines to buy books and meet authors, presenting loved one’s with roses sold on every corner. This year, the economic crisis buffeting Spain, the prediction of bad weather, and the coincidence of the Easter holidays did nothing to stem the crowds. “This is the best Sant Jordi ever!” declared Spanish writer Almudena Grandes, who was among nearly one hundred authors dispatched by publishing houses to sign their latest works. In Barcelona, authors were scheduled to appear at locations throughout the city, in some cases holding as many as eight hour-long appointments to greet readers.

Sant Jordi’s Day was only a slightly calmer affair on the Costa Brava, the area where nationalistic sentiment is the strongest. In the sleepy fishing village of Palamós, where Truman Capote wrote In Cold Blood in the 1960s, where bars and cafés are plastered with black-and-white photos of Hollywood stars who were drawn to the area (Ava Gardner, Kirk Douglas, David Niven, Clark Gable), people thronged to the Carrer Major, the main thoroughfare. The clerks at the Gavina, the best-stocked book store in town, reported that their bestseller for the day was the winner of the Sant Jordi prize, Ramon Solsona’s L’home de la maleta (The Man with the Suitcase), a Catalan novel about a pensioner who once played in dance hall orchestras and now finds himself unable to make sense of contemporary Spain.

In the broad picture, however, the Sant Jordi bestseller list looked different. Among the most popular books, Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 figured prominently, but it was the Spanish translation of Ken Follet’s epic Fall of the Giants that ranked third in sales across Catalunya, according to the Catalan Booksellers Association. It followed Javier Marias’s new novel Los Enamoramientos (Falling in Love), a reflection on love, death, forgiveness, and the importance of chance occurrences. Tapping the recent vein of historical novels, Catalan writer Chufo Llorens’ twelfth-century chronicle, Mar de Foc (Sea of Fire), also sold briskly. Typical of publishing practices here it was released simultaneously in Catalan and Spanish. First place was occupied by Albert Espinosa’s Catalan novel Si tu em dius vine ho deixo tot . . . però digue’m vine (If you say come, I’ll drop everything), the story of a man who after being abandoned by his wife sets out to help a father find his missing son.

When we, mother and daughter, peruse our bookshelves and come upon the many books we have exchanged on Sant Jordi’s Day over the years, like most Catalan readers we see the reflection of our personal and literary relationship. Those with a professional stake in the festa, however, wonder how it will fare amid the challenges of a rapidly shifting editorial landscape. “I worry that the Sant Jordi celebration might disappear if paper books are supplanted by e-books,” said Joan Cots, co-owner of Documenta, a small, meticulously curated book store which opened its doors in Barcelona off Las Ramblas in 1975. “Will roses also be virtual?” he adds. “I mean, someone just sent me one on Facebook.”

But there may be more serious concerns, at once linguistic and cultural. A recent survey indicates that of 3.7 million Catalan readers only one in four reads books in Catalan and 41% of Catalans read not a single book during 2010. Inevitably, one wonders if more roses than books are now being sold on Sant Jordi´s Day.


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