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Why St George’s Day is celebrated in Catalonia with roses and books

Red roses and books flood the streets of Barcelona as Spain's Catalonia region celebrates its patron saint - Sant Jordi.

Why St George's Day is celebrated in Catalonia with roses and books
Gaudi's "Casa Batllo" facade decorated with roses in Barcelona, on Saint George's day. Photo: AFP

The coronavirus crisis meant that last year everyone was confined to their homes during this festival, and celebrations couldn’t take place. But this year, the Diada de Sant Jordi is back, and rose and book stalls line the streets of Catalonia once more. 

The only difference will be social distancing, the wearing of masks and the addition of bottles of hand gel at the stalls.

Every April 23rd on the day of Sant Jordi, or St George, people in the northeastern region give each other a rose or a book in a celebration of their patron saint, love and culture.

Originally the tradition involved men giving their love a rose, while she in return would give him a book. But it has evolved, and today women also receive books, and flowers are given as well to mothers, daughters, friends and even co-workers.

The region marks the day by setting up book and flower stands in the Catalan capital of Barcelona, as well as towns across Catalonia. Roses are typically sold wrapped in yellow and red paper, like the Senyera (Catalan flag) and paired with a sheaf of wheat. Sometimes hearts or small dragon figurines are also attached. 

Bakeries sell special pa de Sant Jordi (red and yellow striped bread) and colourful tarts decorated with roses, musicians perform in the streets of Barcelona, and authors sign copies of their books. 

Why books? 

April 23rd also coincides with UNESCO’s World Book Day, as it celebrates the anniversary of the deaths of William Shakespeare and famed Spanish author of Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes. 

On average retailers sell around six million roses, and over 1.5 million books on the day just in Catalonia, which is home to 7.5 million people.

Catalan booksellers make between 5-8 percent of their annual sales on the day of Sant Jordi and one in every three books bought in Catalonia is sold on this day, according to the Catalan booksellers association. The majority of the books sold are in the Catalan language. 

Since 1931 a book fair has been held in Barcelona on April 23rd – St George’s Day. 

Since then, the tradition of offering books and roses in Catalonia has thrived, even during the 1939-74 dictatorship of General Francisco Franco when the open sale of books in the Catalan language was banned.

READ ALSO: Happy book day! Top ten Spanish literary gifts

Saint George’s day in Barcelona. Photo: Josep LAGO / AFP

Dragon slayer

Catalonia adopted St George as its patron saint in the 15th century, the same patron saint as England, Georgia, Genoa in Italy, and many other places around the world. 

According to legend, he saved a princess from a dragon, by stabbing it with his spear while riding on a white horse. Where the dragon’s blood spilt, a rosebush grew in its place and Sant Jordi offered one of its roses to the princess.

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SPANISH TRADITIONS

Priest outlaws coffins at Spain’s strange ‘Living Dead’ festival

The new priest of a Galician village famed for holding a 'Living Dead' procession in which live people are paraded around in open coffins has banned this year's bizarre spectacle, claiming that it has more to do with witchcraft than religion.

Priest outlaws coffins at Spain's strange 'Living Dead' festival

The Os Mortos Vivos (Living Dead) fiesta held in the village of Santa Marta de Ribarteme in Galicia (northwest Spain) will not be quite as peculiar this year.

That’s because the village’s new priest has decided to ban the day’s star tradition – the Procession of the Shrouds – which sees living people carried around in open coffins through the packed streets.

Usually those who ‘play dead’ in the caskets are locals who have escaped death in real life and it’s their relatives who carry the coffins on their shoulders.

But according to el cura (the priest), the custom has lost its religious significance and morphed into something more sinister.

People who have escaped death in real life lie in caskets and are carried in procession by relatives as a gesture of gratitude. (Photo by MIGUEL RIOPA / AFP)

Speaking to La Sexta TV channel, Father Francisco Javier explained he was against the tradition because, whilst it was popular, it generates “a lot of superstition, a lot of witchcraft, a lot of nonsense”.

The vast majority of Ribarteme’s villagers don’t want to lose this strange ritual which takes place every year on July 29th on the feast day of the local parish’s most important saint, Santa Marta.

One man described the decision as “horrible… because I’ve been coming here [for the event] since I was a boy”.

“It’s only the priest who wants to ban it, it’s a disgrace because it’s a tradition that’s always been like this,” another woman commented.

The Mayor of Santa Marta de Ribarteme, Xosé Manuel Rodríguez, recognised the event as being of cultural interest, and was more optimistic about recovering the spooky tradition.

“We are sure that if it will return,” Rodríguez told La Sexta. “We are going to recover a tradition that all of us would like to see continue”.

A smiling woman is carried in a coffin by relatives during the annual “Procession of the Shrouds”. (Photo by MIGUEL RIOPA / AFP)

Unknown origins

The peculiar tradition of carrying living people around in open coffins has long taken place in the neighbouring Pontevedra villages of As Neves and Santa Marta de Ribarteme.

Some say it came about as a way for people to give thanks to Saint Martha for saving them or a loved one from death, an illness or an accident – or to implore her to do so in future. 

But no one is truly sure about the procession’s origins.

According to a book about the casket carrying published in As Neves, the tradition could date back to the Medieval Crusades. 

Nobles who left Galicia for the Middle East discovered in France the story of Saint Martha, whose brother Lazarus was raised from the dead when Jesus visited their home, according to the Bible’s account.

When they returned, they thanked the saint for having spared them from death by occupying their own coffins, according to this book.  

Expect to see plenty of emotion at the Procession of the Shrouds, even from the ‘living dead’. (Photo by MIGUEL RIOPA / AFP)

Another explanation is offered by Carlos Hernández, a sociologist who wrote a thesis about the procession.

In the past, people would buy their own coffin while they were still alive when they had the means or when a family member was ill, he said.   

If a seriously ill person survived, they would donate their coffin to the local parish for those who could not afford one.

The procession is similar to other rituals in Spain that depict the fight being good and evil, life and death, according to Hernández.

“Its about daring to stare death in the face, looking at Evil, so that life wins,” he argued.

Another village in Galicia also stages a procession with coffins, but in this case they are empty.

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