Friday, April 22, 2011

Demà és Sant Jordi: Saint George's Day in Catalonia

Tomorrow is Saint George’s Day, or the Diada de Sant Jordi, and it’s a big deal in Catalonia. For F.C. Barcelona fans like me, the crushing disappointment of Wednesday’s Copa del Rey defeat at the hands of Real Madrid is slowly starting to wear off and I expect that the Catalans will be very ready for the festivity. Now, I knew Saint George was the patron saint of Catalonia and from there the nationalist relevance of what was originally a religious feast. The cult of the dragon-slaying saint was widespread throughout medieval Europe. The cross of Saint George pretty much is the English flag and the red on white design figures in the heraldry of places as diverse as Catalonia and the Ukraine. But in recent years, especially across Latin America, the custom of vigorously promoting books on the 23rd of April and accompanying each book sale with a rose has become widespread. The explanation was that it is a custom adopted from Catalonia. So basically you have a medieval warrior-knight cult mixed with books and roses? What, I wondered, was the connection? Whoa. Time to visit Wikipedia.

What I was able to glean was that it has been customary in Catalonia since the Middle Ages for men to bequeath a rose to their lovers on the day. OK, that accounts for the rose. Now for the book. It turns out that in the 1970s UNESCO declared it World Book Day. The 23rd of April was chosen because it is the day in 1616 when both Cervantes and Shakespeare died. Except that they didn’t, because the one-armed creator of the Spanish language died on the 22nd of April and wasn’t buried until the next day, whereas the two-armed creator of the English tongue actually died in May or thereabouts. However, because Protestant England resisted the Popish innovation of the Gregorian calendar and held on to the pagan Julian calendar until the eighteenth century, the (near) coincidence of the demise of the two legendary scribblers passed unremarked for many decades.

Are you with me so far? Sant Jordi, then, is a feast with four layers that have collided thanks to centuries of complex coincidences, near-coincidences and not-very-real- coincidences. The religious meaning has probably long since been lost beneath layers of medieval myth-making. The nationalist relevance is that Sant Jordi is the patron saint of Catalonia. The romantic significance is that on this feast day, gallants gave their ladies a rose. And the bibliophilic meaning was conferred upon the date by some imaginative U.N. bureaucrat with a degree in Romance languages. This initiative has now been bolstered by some sly Catalan book entrepreneur as a good excuse to move some paper and the idea has caught on in the Spanish-speaking world.

These wikipedic excursions were motivated by the fact this year’s celebrations of Sant Jordi include a series of conferences in the locality of Vilafranca del Penedés devoted to my grandfather’s work. Vilafranca, about an hour by train from Barcelona, is where my paternal grandfather and grandmother were born. Several local historians have invested a lot of effort in preserving the city’s heritage, which includes, I am proud to say, my grandfather’s oeuvre (mainly three books: La ben nascuda, Com han estat i com som els Catalans, and Servidumbre y grandeza de la filosofía). He wrote mostly in Catalan and his lifelong passion and only subject was his homeland, which is somewhat poignant given that he lived as an exile from 1939, when he was not yet 30, until his death in Caracas in 1985 (here is a detailed biographical sketch). That loss, of course, marked the common experience of the Republican diaspora that fled Spain at the end of the Civil War. Fortunately, though, he did live long enough to see off the end of the Fascist dictatorship, the return of democracy and the restitution of Catalan regional autonomy.

My visit to the online encyclopedia then compelled me to visit Vilafranca’s homepage to see whether it has any plans for Sant Jordi. It turns out that it does and the best summary is on this page. The activities scheduled for Saturday include an outdoor sale (all day long) of roses and books at which several authors from the vicinity will be signing books. At the Jaume I Square at 18.00h there will be a children’s play explaining the legend of Sant Jordi. On Monday, April 25, at 19.00 there is a concert by a local children’s choir devoted to Sant Jordi at the Church of Sant Francesc which apparently has an altarpiece representing the saint (I did not visit this church during my visit to Vilafranca).

However, Vilafranca is synonymous with the castells, and the feast day does not disappoint. The Plaça de la Vila, or main square, features a presentation by the Colla Jove Xiquets de Vilafranca. I had the opportunity to see a competition of castells in the Sants quarter of Barcelona on my last visit to Barcelona. And I was also able to see the Castellers de Vilafranca practice their craft at their headquarters. I was even recruited to participate as one of the bottom rungs of the human ladder, when the cap de colla (head of the troupe) called for els més bestiolets, i.e., the bigger dudes (I’m six feet tall and weigh 220 pounds, so there was really no way around it). Anyway, both as a visual spectacle and as a participant, it is an intense, breathtaking and utterly impressive spectacle, so if you get a chance, go and see the castells either on Sant Jordi or any other diada castellera.

Oh, Vilafranca also means wine, so by all means pay a visit to the city’s Wine Museum, or Vinseum, with exhibitions about the region’s wine industry, curated by Joan Cuscó. And if your thing isn’t museums but rather tours of the wine-growing countryside and tasting the thing itself, then visit the website covering wine country tours for the area. It is in English and seems to be pretty detailed. That, of course, has nothing to do with Sant Jordi, but is worthwhile taking into account if you’re already there. And here I leave it for today. Have a happy Diada de Sant Jordi if you happen to be in Catalonia and, even if you aren’t, buy a good book and read it (one of the precepts of Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life).

Miguel Llorens is a freelance financial translator based in Madrid who works from Spanish into English. He is specialized in equity research, economics, accounting, and investment strategy. He has worked as a translator for Goldman Sachs, the US Government's Open Source Center and H.B.O. International, as well as many small-and-medium-sized brokerages and asset management companies operating in SpainTo contact him, visit his website and write to the address listed there. Feel free to join his LinkedIn network or to follow him on Twitter.

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