Sunday, April 25, 2010

Roses, Books, and Catalanisme: La Diada de Sant Jordi

{{Por eso esperaba, con la carita empapada, a que llegaras con rosas, con mil rosas para mi}}

Friday, April 23, was the Diada de Sant Jordi, or Saint George's Day in English, one of the most important holidays in Catalunya. Sant Jordi is the patron saint of Catalunya, and they go truly all-out to celebrate his day. According to the legend, there was once a town that a dragon descended upon and began to ravish. To placate the dragon, the inhabitants agreed to hold a lottery to sacrifice a person to the dragon each day. One day the name of the princess, who was loved by all the inhabitants, was called, and because the king was a just man and the princess brave, they refused to let another be sacrificed in her place. But as she stood waiting for the dragon to come and take her away, Sant Jordi arrived on a white horse to fight off the dragon (some say the dragon first carried away the princess and Sant Jordi rescued her from its cave). When Sant Jordi slayed the dragon, the most beautiful rosebush ever grew from its blood, and Sant Jordi gave the princess a rose before riding away. For this reason, one of the traditions of la Diada de Sant Jordi is for all men to give women a rose (mainly for couples, but good friends do this as well).

The tradition of giving books arose as an idea of a bookseller in the 1930s, who promoted this as a special day to sell books because both Shakespeare and Cervantes died on the 23rd of April. Traditionally women give men books, but that has also changed, with people buying books for their loved ones in general, or for themselves. The great majority of Catalunya's book sales occur the 23rd and the days before Sant Jordi. Stalls selling books and roses are set up all across the city, with the highest density (and prices) concentrated on Las Ramblas, authors sign books at all the major bookstores, and everyone gets into the spirit of reading and giving.

One reason that Sant Jordi is such an important figure for Catalunya is that he, in a way, represents the fight of Catalunya against Spain itself, in terms of preserving its culture, traditions, language, and national pride. Sant Jordi represents Catalanisme, the struggle of the small power against the large.

Las Ramblas was the most crowded I have ever seen it, a complete flood of people holding roses and browsing booksellers, music, smiles, and festivities. Even though Sant Jordi is not technically a holiday day and people still have to work, most still find a way to escape from their jobs at least for a bit and enjoy the festive atmosphere. I enjoyed some of the famous pan de Sant Jordi, which is a small loaf bread made with stripes of cheese bread and bread with some sort of pepper, so that, if you cut it properly, it has yellow and red stripes like the Catalan flag. Mine was perfect because it had just come out of the oven when I bought it and was perfectly warm and soft inside with a lovely crunch on the crust. I wish they made it the rest of the year too!

For la Diada de Sant Jordi, the government of Catalunya opens two major government buildings--La Palau de la Generalitat and the building of the Ajuntament--to the public to walk through and gain a better understanding of what is behind the walls of their government buildings. I went in both of them and they were absolutely stunning. The Ajuntament, where the offices of the governor of Barcelona are located, along with other official offices, was an absolutely stunning building; ornate, richly decorated, with priceless art covering the walls, beautiful painted scenes depicting the history of Catalunya or anecdotes about justice and truth. The Palau de la Generalitat was less impressive at first (more technical spaces with places for the press and for meetings of the Generalitat de Catalunya), but as we wandered further we discovered great rooms with statues and paintings and carvings of Sant Jordi (I found 15, and I'm sure there are more), and then later a gigantic chapel with magnificent paintings of monumental moments in the history of Spain and Catalunya (such as Columbus' reception by Ferdinand and Isabella after discovering the Americas).

I had a great day wandering and enjoying the spirit of la Diada de Sant Jordi all day Friday. There were readings of Don Quixote in cafes, spirited dances of the Sardana in plazas throughout the city, and general celebrations of love, reading, and all that makes Catalunya its own special nation with a pride and heritage of its own.

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