Barcelona culture: history of Sant Jordi

On Thursday 23rd April 2020, the city of Barcelona and the Autonomous Community of Catalonia will celebrate Sant Jordi. Otherwise known as Saint George, the Patron Saint of Catalonia has represented Barcelona and the surrounding area for hundreds of years. This dates back to when Catalonia was under the crown of Aragon, this unity led to fellow regions sharing the patronage of Sant Jordi. That is why he is also the Saint for Valencia, the Balearics, Malta, Sicily and Sardinia. The crown of Aragon brought them all together.

sant jordi barcelona

Therefore, the 23rd April is a very important day in the calendar for most of Northern Spain and some parts of Italy. However, the Catalonian tradition is the one that we will focus on for the remainder of this article. A day of romance, it is the Barcelona equivalent of Valentine´s Day. We will discover why it is customary to give your loved one a rose and a book on the day of Sant Jordi in Barcelona.

Rose origins

The story of the rose and its association with Sant Jordi dates back to the 15th Century. According to legend, a town south of Barcelona- believed to be Montblanc, by Tarragona, left terrorised by a dragon for many years. In order to appease the beast, the locals in the town sacrificed two lambs. Then, as they began to run out of lambs, they started to offer a human and a lamb. The person was chosen by random and any family who lost a loved one was paid compensation from the king. After some time, the locals decided that one of the royals should be sacrificed, it was decided that the king´s daughter would be the next sacrifice.

colourful roses barcelona

A knight named Jordi, protected the princess and slayed the dragon. From the blood of the dragon, a single rose sprung from the field below. He presented it to the princess and the King offered to pay the brave knight for saving his daughter. Jordi decided that any money he would recieve should be used in the town by the people who have suffered from the terror of the dragon. He was adored by this and had a church built in his honour. The river that ran next to the church was believed to have sacred water that cured the sick.

Since the start of this legend in medieval times, it has been common practice for men to give their partner a rose as a sign of their love. As time has gone by, there has been more choice in rose colour for the people of Catalonia to gift their loved one. This has led to some interpretation on the nature of a relationship between two people based on the colour of the rose.

Rose colours and their meaning

Red roses are for love
Yellow roses are for friendship
White roses are for innocence
Orange roses are for passion and desire
Pink roses are for happiness

flower stall

Introduction of books

In 1926, this long-term tradition became known also as “El Dia del Llibre” (The Day of the Book). That is because, the 23rd April coincided with the death of two great authors in Shakespeare and Miguel Cervantes. They both passed away on 23rd April 1616. Since then, historically it has become accustom to return the favour of a rose, by giving a gentleman a book to read. This idea of love and literature tied together seamlessly. It is still the main attraction on La Diada de Sant Jordi in Barcelona. The idea of book sharing, picked up by UNESCO in 1995, is celebrated globally as World Book Day. Also celebrated on the 23rd April.

books sant jordi

What to expect from Sant Jordi in Barcelona

On this day, you can see plenty of Sant Jordi traditions taking place all over Barcelona, from the city centre to the outskirts. For the main Sant Jordi attraction, we would suggest going to La Rambla. This, the most popular street in Barcelona, is converted into a temporary location for rose stands and bookstalls that are set up for this day only. It is assumed by many that some 6 million roses and 800,000 books are bought for this day. That is around half of Catalonia´s yearly book sales!

roses sant jordi

For public readings, music and dance, you should go to Plaça Sant Jaume. This is where you will find a host of authors reading aloud from Spanish and Catalan literature. Also, this square hosts lots of Sardana dances. This is the national dance of Catalonia. You can recognise it as the locals link hands and dance in a circle, like sardines, where it gets its name. Lastly, for those interested in politics, the Palau de la Genralitat is open on this day. This is the main government building for the community of Catalonia. There are wonderful rose decorations for you to admire as well at this important building.

If you find yourself in Barcelona over the 23rd April, then you simply must attend La Diada de Sant Jordi. This is a cultural experience like no other. Making it ideal to enjoy with that special someone, so get your rose and book at the ready!

Sandra Roig is Marketing Director at AB Apartment Barcelona. AB Apartment Barcelona is an apartment rental agency offering over one thousand short and long term apartments across Barcelona.

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Comments (10)

  1. Beth says:

    I can see a lot of awkward moments developing here. He doesn’t send a card for Valentine’s Day and then has to make up for it on Sant Jordi’s Day whilst she thinks that she’s done her bit on Valentine’s Day. God – love is complicated. Not sure that I’d last long in a relationship in Barcelona.

    • James says:

      I suppose that’s good news for florists and restaurants. Bonanza time for both Valentine’s Day and St Jordi’s for that sort of business.

    • Sandra Roig says:

      Dear Beth and James,

      Thank you both for your contributioins. Yes it is certainly unique for celebrations here. People can feel under the pressure of western culture to spend lots of money on material ways to show affection.

      In Barcelona, most local couples find a middle ground of just celebrating Sant Jordi. This can be argued as being another way to make money off of people´s emotions. As long as that goes on, there will be a market for this in the city!

      Thanks again for some useful input! It is very much appreciated.

      Kind regards,

      On behalf of AB Apartment Barcelona

  2. Jen Scott says:

    Someone was telling me about this when I stayed in Salou the other year. He worked at the retreat we stayed in and although his home town in Barcelona, he worked down in Salou for the tourist season. He was very passionate about Catalonia (and the whole fight for independence, but that’s another story). Celebrating Sant Jordi is a big deal for many there. I’d quite like to go during that time as I imagine there would be a great sense of energy and community, and of course it’s a learning curve too, feeling part of the history and culture there. I was told the dragon and dragon and rose story because they actually presented all the tourists staying with them with a rose, which I thought was just very sweet but hadn’t realised the significance of the rose at the time.

    Now the book thing, that I didn’t know. So what we know as World Book Day came from Sant Jordi and the historical matter of returning the rose favour by giving the gentlemen a book to read? I never even wondered where the whole World Book Day originated before so that’s good to know!

    • Sandra Roig says:

      Hi Jen,

      Thanks for your wonderful contribution, it means a lot! Salou is also a wonderful spot, I hope you had a great time!

      Definitely, many locals here absolutely adore the Sant Jordi traditions and have a strong connection to it. When they see tourists embracing this part of culture then they welcome them and admire their willingness to learn. If you told them how informed you had become then you would quickly make local friends!

      Yes the World Book Day fact comes as a welcome surprise to many. In Spain, Miguel Cervantes is as well revered as Shakespeare is in the UK, the coinciding of their passing will forever be remembered in a way we know they would be proud!

      Thanks again for your comment.
      Kind regards,

      On behalf of AB Apartment Barcelona

  3. Jen says:

    I can’t think of a better place for a romantic break than Barcelona. As well as that Sant Jordi’s day couldn’t come at a better time of the year. Even in Barcelona, Valentine’s Day on February 14th can be cold.

    By 23rd April things are warming up nicely and the days are getting longer. A romantic dinner al fresco is a real possibility in Barcelona’s spring.

    If more people knew about Sant Jordi’s day I could see it taking over for some couples as their day of celebration.

    • Sandra Roig says:

      Hi Jen,

      Thank you for your interesting contribution!

      You´re not wrong about the weather in February! The start of March can still be a bit crisp. As for the end of April, this is the ideal time for locals and tourists to come and celebrate Sant Jordi. It also feels more fitting to celebrate love and romance around Spring, with the nature coming back to life. It also means roses are in full bloom!

      I too think Sant Jordi could become an idea that is entertained by more couples.

      Kind regards,

      On behalf of AB Apartment Barcelona

  4. Jason says:

    I met somebody last year while traveling who said he had lived in Barcelona for something like seven years. I wish I got a chance to talk to him about his time there. There are many facets to the city that make it seem like a beautiful place to reside, especially with little holidays like this. It would be nice to give a rose and get a book in return!

    • Sandra Roig says:

      Dear Jason,

      Thanks for your contribution! That sounds like good fun, I hope you enjoyed your travels.

      Yes, Sant Jordi is definitely one of the traditions that make Barcelona a great place to live in. The truth is, however, as the city has endless celebrations and traditions, it is easy for some of these dates to not spring to mind when having a conversation with someone.

      Still, Sant Jordi is a very popular festivity that shows up in conversation just after the New Year, very much like Valentines day in the UK! If you were talking about your culture to someone, you would likely pull on the things going on at this moment, rather than something half a year away.

      Maybe this year you will recieve your book, so long as you find someone to give a rose to first!

      Thanks again for your comment.
      Kind regards,

      On behalf of AB Apartment Barcelona

  5. Debra Glover says:

    I wonder if this still works with the youth of today. Giving roses seems more like something the older generation would do. Whereas the younger ones tend to do their wooing and courting on the internet or via their mobile phones. It’s good to know that some traditional things still live on inspite of the fast changing times. I for one still love to receive flowers, it just does wonders to your ego and is still something very romantic. Now, talking about colors, what do blue roses mean?

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