We are all aware that April 23rd is St George’s Day but in my naivety it wasn’t until we moved to Spain that I realised he is not just the patron saint of England. Georgia, Russia, Ethiopia, Greece, Lithuania, Palestine, Portugal and parts of Spain to name but a few, also claim him as their patron and each have various tales handed down through the ages about his famous slaying of a dragon. In Spain; Aragon, Valencia, the Balearic Islands and here in Catalunya where we live all celebrate his day with a public holiday.
Basically the legend of Sant Jordi, as he is called in Catalunya, tells of how he slew a dragon about to devour a Catalan princess. In one version of the tale however it is said that a rose bush sprouted from the dragon’s blood and Sant Jordi picked the prettiest rose to give to the princess. In another story we are told that a drop of the dragon’s blood fell on a white rose and this flower gradually changed into the red rose. Whichever you believe though, a red rose is now universally associated with the brave knight and in Barcelona they have been celebrating his day since the 15th century with a Rose Festival to honour chivalry and love. At the end of the 19th century, Sant Jordi became a Catalan symbol as it was felt that his struggle against the dragon was similar to the Catalan struggle for freedom.
In 1923 the Rose Festival merged with el dia del libre, ‘the day of the book’, which honours two great literary figures, Miguel de Cervantes and William Shakespeare, who both died on April 23rd 1616. Hence it is customary over here to present ladies with a rose, a symbol of love, and men with a book as a symbol of culture. Literary competitions are also held to encourage children to develop, respect and enjoy the Catalan language and literature, and apparently in 1995 UNESCO was so impressed by this that they declared this date the International Day of the Book.
I believe Salisbury has held an annual St George’s Day pageant since the 13th century, but it is well known that the Spanish enjoy their fiestas and have gone one better. Of course the English know that St George slayed the dragon at Uffington, next to the White Horse in the Vale of Pewsey, and that the grass never grows on top of the mound because that’s where the dragon’s blood spilt. However, the writer and historian, Joan Amades declared that Montblanc, a walled town about 25 miles from us, was where Sant Jordi slayed his dragon and since 1987 the people of the town have organised a Medieval Week of festivities covering two weekends about April 23rd
All the streets, squares and towers are decorated with flags and standards and a group of knights patrol and guard the town. During the day they have a medieval market with demonstrations of medieval trades, as well as cava, wines and food on display, and this is followed by fireworks and traditional suppers in the evenings. Needless to say there is a re-enactment of St George slaying the dragon and presenting a rose to the princess, all accompanied by a spectacular display of lights, sound and fireworks! Indeed the whole week has become so renowned that it has been designated a Festival of National Tourist interest by the Spanish tourist board.
Finally, in England we have the proverb: if it rains on St Swithun’s Day it will rain for another forty days and nights, well in Catalunya they say: si plou per Sant Jordi les cireres en orris! – if it rains on St George’s day there will be no cherries!