Sunday, April 21, 2013

La Diada de Sant Jordi

This Tuesday, the 23rd of April, is a very special day for Catalonia, along with its national day on September 11th, one of the most important in the calendar. It should also be important in England, though if you asked a collection of people, it’s a fair bet you would find plenty who had no clue what makes the 23rd different to any other day in April. For this is the day of St George, patron of England, who incidentally happens to be the patron saint of Catalonia too, as well as a dozen or so other countries. There’s clearly plenty of him to go around (read down if you’re interested in the myth). And unlike in England – where unless there is a big sporting event on, patriotism can’t escape from having a whiff of racism about it – here it really is a freely celebrated national event. 


Two traditions mark the day of Sant Jordi in Catalonia – the giving of roses by guys to girls, and the giving of books from anyone to anyone. Rose-giving goes back to the 15th Century, but books weren’t involved until 1926, when someone decided to commemorate the anniversary of the death of Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, Spain’s great novel. In 1995, UNESCO took up the idea and declared the 23rd of April ‘World Book Day’, also commemorating the day on which Shakespeare passed through nature to eternity. ‘Book Day’ began as a parallel but soon became absorbed into the festival of Sant Jordi, it becoming a tradition to give a book to someone close. The fervour with which this tradition has been taken up is seen in the fact that nearly half of all sales of books written in Catalan are reaped on this day – no wonder authors do their utmost to promote their book at this time! And so now, Sant Jordi is firmly established as the day of the book and the rose, taking on the feel of St Valentines', not really celebrated here, and so becoming a day of love and literature!

Exactly who St George was has been talked about in far more detail than I can give here. But basically, the ‘facts’ are as follows: he was a Greek; he lived around the year AD 300; he was conscripted into the Roman army where he rose through the ranks to a prominent position; here his Christian faith came up against the idolatry of the Roman Empire. Refusing to offer sacrifices to the gods, or declare Caesar a god himself, he was executed. Hence through his defence of the faith, his death became martyrdom and he a symbol of triumph – Christianity over the Roman Empire and Satan (often identified in that day with the Roman Empire, as in the book of Revelation in the Bible). The next step was to visualise this symbol, hence the creation of the dragon-myth – a pagan village offering human sacrifices to appease a terrible dragon (another image of the Devil) which is slain by the sword of the Christian warrior, George, who frees the villagers from their slavery and brings them to the true faith. The most famous image of St George, therefore, is of him slaying the dragon, an image which has many parallels to that of St Michael (the Archangel) defeating Lucifer, cementing George’s position as a champion of the Kingdom of Heaven.

St Michael and the Devil; source:
St George and the dragon

This myth emerged through the Orthodox iconography of the Byzantine Empire, and was brought back to Western Europe with the return of the Crusaders from the Holy Land. This is evidenced by the place of importance St George suddenly takes here – the flag of St George is adopted as the flag of England around this time, and in Catalonia, he takes a prominent stance in religious iconography and local legend (for example at Montblanc, the site where he supposedly slew his scaly foe). All in all a remarkable story surrounding a remarkable figure, who – if the tale is to be believed – deserves to be remembered as an example of peacefully yet powerfully holding true to his beliefs. 

Happy Sant Jordi's day!

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