There’s one day of the year I particularly miss Barcelona, my home. It’s not Christmas or New Year’s Day. Definitely not Easter (even if I’m very particular to a certain kind of sweet available only around that time). Not my birthday. Not the annual festival to commemorate the city: La Mercè. Although that one comes in a close second. Nothing beats free concerts on the streets, fireworks and human towers, right? Well, almost nothing.
I moved to the States almost 13 years ago and I’m past the homesickness you tend to experience when you start living in a new or unknown place. But every year on April 23, World Book Day, it still aches a bit not to be on the streets of my hometown. It’s a day that promotes reading and publishing that’s been celebrated worldwide since 1995 but goes back to the late 1920s in Catalonia. We celebrate it with books and roses.
The thing is, there’s a lot to celebrate on that date. On the one hand, it’s Saint George’s day — la diada de Sant Jordi. He’s the patron saint of Catalonia. According to the legend, Sant Jordi was a knight who saved your typical princess in distress from a dangerous and very hungry dragon. The knight killed the dragon and from its blood grew a bush of bright red roses. Sant Jordi gave the most beautiful of the flowers to the princess. And Catalans have been doing the same with their loved ones ever since. The giving-red-roses part, that is. Not the dragon-slaying bit.
So Sant Jordi’s day is like Catalan lovers’ day (el dia dels enamorats). Valentine’s Day but much better, in my completely unbiased opinion. Especially because we celebrate all kinds of love, not only for the person you are in love with but also for friends and family members. Although traditionally it was the women who received the roses, the whole celebration is now in tune with contemporary culture and it’s encouraged to give flowers to everyone, regardless of gender.
Even if you aren’t much into flowers, there are more ways to say “I love you,” “I like you” or “I love myself” that day. Besides the rose vendors, the streets are full of bookstalls. You’re encouraged to buy a book or two for your loved one(s). And you can even get the newest releases signed since many authors can be found hanging around the bookstore stands among the main streets Rambla Catalunya, La Rambla and Passeig de Gràcia.
The books were added to the equation in the late 1920s. The brilliant idea to have a day dedicated to literature, a book party (festa del llibre), traces to Valencian writer and editor Vicent Clavel. April 23 is also the anniversary of the deaths of Miguel de Cervantes and William Shakespeare, which makes the whole thing very fitting.
And in 1995 UNESCO joined the party, declaring April 23 World Book and Copyright Day. (I know, that doesn’t sound quite so appealing.)
After so many years far from home, I’ve developed a system to celebrate the day here. It’s not the same, but it’s good enough. My husband normally gets me a dozen red roses. In Barcelona, per tradition, I would have gotten one from him and one from my dad. But I’m glad we’re not sticking strictly to the norms.
And that day we go to a bookstore and buy books for one another — and for ourselves. Last year he got me Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects and I got him Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Death by Black Hole. The previous year he chose nonfiction for me (Marie Kondo’s Spark Joy and Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl), while I chose fiction for him (Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go).
I tend to go to a different bookstore another day during Sant Jordi’s week and treat myself to even more reading material. (I gave myself Lucia Berlin’s A Manual For Cleaning Women and Elmore Leonard’s Out of Sight these past years.) I never feel guilty about buying books, even when I know I might not read all of them. My Goodreads’ Reading Challenge has a goal of 24 books this year. I always have a pile of books on my nightstand patiently waiting for me.
Technically you can celebrate Sant Jordi every day by supporting your local bookstore, but it feels good to have a special party and make the most of that day or that week. In the end, the idea is to spend it with people you like, and with literature. The roses are completely optional but highly encouraged.
Now you know. This Tuesday, if you see someone on the street carrying a single red rose with a long stem, chances are they’re a Catalan expat trying to make someone special happy.