Last week I was in Barcelona for a short holiday. On April 23rd, two days after my arrival there, the citizens celebrated St George’s Day. Now I’d known the dragon-slaying saint was held in high esteem in quite a few places – he’s the patron of England, obviously, and he’s also much admired in Ethiopia, where I’d lived from 1999 to 2001. I hadn’t known, however, that the Catalans think a lot of him too – Sant Jordi, they call him. In fact, last week, I saw them make a big deal of his day.
St George cakes and chocolates were on sale in shops and at street-stalls, as were Disney-fied toy dragons. Playing up the romantic side of his legend, in which he slays the dragon to save a princess — which makes the story seem like a retelling of the Greek myth of Perseus and Andromeda — April 23rd has also been turned into a Catalonian equivalent of St Valentine’s Day. Roses were on sale everywhere, and in the evening I scarcely saw one lady heading homewards through the streets or on the subway who didn’t have a St George’s Day rose in her hand.
The other gimmick used in Barcelona to market St George’s Day is… books! Yes, every street corner and stretch of pavement above a subway exit seemed to have a stall piled high with good, solid, traditional volumes of reading matter. There wasn’t an e-reader in sight. This is because, I was told, April 23rd is also the day that both William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes passed away — although when I Googled Cervantes later, I learned that he’d actually died on April 22nd.
All this is in contrast with England, where every year around this time the newspapers have a right old moan about the English not doing enough to celebrate their patron saint – and by extension, their own Englishness. After all, the Irish have profitably turned St Patrick’s Day into one of the biggest hooleys in the world’s calendar. And while the Scots and the Welsh make less of St Andrew and St David, they at least – thanks, perhaps, to devolution – have a greater sense of their own identity nowadays.
The English media also sees an annual debate about how they should celebrate St George’s Day. Should they play a little cricket? No, that’d be boring, surely. Should they indulge in some Morris dancing? No, that’d be way too embarrassing. Meanwhile, liberals voice their suspicions that making more of St George’s Day would encourage nasty groups on the far right to crawl out of the woodwork. After all, the St George’s cross has often been visible at gatherings by the likes of the English Defence League, British National Party and National Front, and there’s even a neo-fascist organisation on the go called the League of St George.
Well, the Catalans provide two examples of how St George’s Day can be peacefully celebrated, in a romantic manner with roses and in an intellectually stimulating manner with books. Mind you, in this era of Catalonian nationalism, when speculation is rife that Catalonia might soon secede from Spain, I suspect they use St George too to differentiate themselves culturally from the Castilian Spaniards.
Incidentally, during my week in Barcelona, I think the only time I saw a Spanish flag was when I was in the Place Sant Jaume. Compare that with Edinburgh, where the most prominent flag in the Scottish capital is the Union Jack flying high above the ramparts of Edinburgh Castle – a none-too-subtle reminder for the Scots that the real power still resides in London. Cheekily, someone used St George’s Day in Barcelona to hang this banner on the façade of the Banco Espanol de Credito building at Plaza de Catalunya:
Regarding the English far-right’s fixation with St George, when I lived in Ethiopia I found it ironic that the saint’s image could be seen nearly everywhere – and often he was depicted slaying that pesky dragon. This being Ethiopia, though, St George was black. And why shouldn’t he be?
Finally, it was a pity that the enthusiasm expressed in Barcelona for St George, or Sant Jordi, didn’t inspire the local football team to give a better account of themselves that day. April 23rd saw Barcelona FC get gubbed in the Champions League, 4-0 by Bayern Munich.