La Diada de Sant Jordi, which takes place on April 23, is one of the most important holidays in Catalonia. Known as Lover´s Day, it commemorates the feast of Sant Jordi and is celebrated with books and roses.
The origin of the festival is actually a mixture of traditions and customs from many different countries. The tale of Sant Jordi (Saint George) is known all over the world and Saint George is the patron saint of many countries and regions, among them Catalonia. Legend has it that once upon a time there was a small village that had been terrorized by a dragon. The villagers were forced to give the dragon their chickens, sheep, and goats, until one day there was nothing left and the dragon demanded a child.
It was decided that the king´s daughter should be the first one sacrificed, and so she said goodbye to the villagers and set off for the dragon´s den. Luckily, a knight arrived to the village soon after and when he realized what had happened he went to the dragon´s den to save her. The knight, who was Sant Jordi, killed the dragon by stabbing him through the heart, and as the dragon died a rose tree sprouted from the blood. Sant Jordi then plucked one of the roses and presented it to the princess. The legend inspired the Rose Festival, which goes back to the Middle Ages, and from which came the tradition of men giving roses their true loves.
Now, here is where things get a bit more interesting. April 23 is the anniversary of the deaths of both William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes. So, in 1923, someone had the idea of combining the two traditions and giving the men a book, which is quite appropriate given that Barcelona is also the publishing capital of both the Spanish and Catalan speaking world.
The idea caught on, and in 1995 UNESCO officially declared April 23 World Book and Copyright Day. Traditionally men are given a book and women are given a rose, but these days it´s common for both to receive books. Not only that, but men tend to give roses to all women who are important to them, not just their lover, so they will buy roses for mothers, daughters, friends, etc. As Sant Jordi is associated with springtime and fertility the roses normally include a spike of wheat, and of course a small Catalan flag.
Flowers and books are sold all over the city, especially on Las Ramblas, which is filled with rose and book stands, most of them decorated with the Catalan flag. Officially it´s not a public holiday, but given the amount of people in the street it´s clear that more than a few either leave the office early or skip work altogether in order to enjoy the day. If Las Ramblas feels too crowded, you can check out other areas such as Rambla Poble Nou or the squares in Gracia.
Traditionally coca, a sort of cake, is eaten on this day. It can be found in any local bakery and purchased by the slice or the loaf. Normally it is in the form of the Catalan flag (look for the red and yellow stripes) and displayed in the windows, and eaten in the evening with a glass of cava.
Even if you are not in a relationship there is plenty to do on Sant Jordi day. There are 24-hour readings of Don Quixote all over the city, normally in coffee shops and bakeries. Authors come to the book stalls to sign their books and in Sarrià an artisan florist, el Taller de Arte Floral Flora Miserachs (Calle Avió Plus Ultra), displays 50 kinds of roses representing 50 kind of love, from unrequited to maternal. In addition, choral groups can been found singing love songs on street corners and jazz bands have been known to play in Plaça del Pi, and in Plaça de Sant Joan in Gracia there is live music after 6:30pm.
April 23 is also the one day of the year when the Palau de la Generalitat, Barcelona´s main government building, is open to the public. You can go inside (entrance is free), where you´ll find huge displays of roses in honor of Sant Jordi, and throughout the day the sardana is danced in the plaza in front. There you will also find El Gran Libro de Sant Jordi (the Great Book of Saint George) which is a large handmade book where citizens can leave messages inspired by Sant Jordi.
By the end of the day nearly every woman in Catalonia will have received at least one rose, a total of four million roses will have been purchased, and an average of 800,000 thousand books will have been sold, which is almost half of the annual book sales in Catalonia.