The story of the Sant Jordi festival, told through the prism of the legend, the rose and the book

Sant Jordi is one of the best-loved festivals in our calendar. Even when it falls on a working day, hundreds of people go out for a stroll around the book stands, to buy a rose or attend one of the many programmed events. But the thing that makes Sant Jordi different from the other festivals is that its origins do not lie in the remote past. The festival, as it is known today, is the result of 19th century conservative Catalanism. This cultural and political movement gave the day a sense of cultural vindication that is still very much alive today.

The Legend. However, some of the elements featured in the festival really are old, such as the legend and veneration of Sant Jordi [St. George], which date back to the Middle Ages. The story of the knight who kills a dragon to save a princess was first told in Jacobus de Voragine’s "Golden Legend" in the 13th century. During the crusades, the cult of St. George became more and more common among knights and is known that in 18th century Barcelona, nobles celebrated a mass in honour of their patron saint every year. Even so, at that time Sant Jordi was not a popular festival, because only noble families celebrated it.

The Rose. The rose is another of the festival’s symbols. We know that in 18th century Barcelona, there was a flower festival every spring, where people in love went to buy roses for their partners. Moreover, flowers are an important feature in various spring festivals which, since time immemorial, have been linked to the cult of fertility, including the Creu de Maig [Cross of May] and Corpus Christi. This leads us to the conclusion that the custom may date back to Roman times, when they used to hold festivals in honour of the goddess Flora, which were later Christianised.

The Book. The 23rd of April is World Book and Authors’ Rights Day, because it happens to be the day when various outstanding world-literature authors were born or died. So the celebration of World Book Day is a foreign festival that has become deeply rooted in Catalonia. It all began in the 1920s, coinciding with a time of great social, political and cultural fervour. And the fact that the festival was banned during the Primo de Rivera dictatorship and permitted, but under strict controls, during the Franco era only helped to consolidate Sant Jordi as a great day for vindicating Catalan culture.