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Dragons and roses: celebrate a Spanish fiesta, English-style
Samantha Kett, thinkSPAINtoday , Sunday, April 22, 2007

Saints on horseback bring out the bookworm in us... 

Fly the flags and bring on the beer. This week, our English readers are suddenly going to become nostalgic for their mother country and celebrate their own fiestas patronales in style.

Almost every English bar on the coast will be adorned with white banners bearing red crosses and probably advertising a happy hour, too. Despite the fact that few people in England bother to mark Saint George’s Day and most haven’t a clue as to what date it falls on, for some reason, finding themselves living abroad suddenly gives the English a patriotic pull on their heartstrings and makes them reclaim their lost heritage on April 23, the one day of the year when they wear their nationality like a medal.

Many of our other English readers will be bowing their heads in shame at the drunken antics and pub-fights that take place this week in the name of national pride. We live in Spain, now, they will say. It is our duty and a privilege to integrate with the natives of our adoptive country and break out of the ghetto.

What they may not realise is that those living it up in their nearest British pub on Monday are following a global tradition, and a very Spanish one, too. In Cataluña, thousands more will be partying on the streets that day, and not only the English. Saint George is also the patron saint of the north-eastern coastal region of Spain, where he is known by the catalán translation of Sant Jordi.

Like the English, the catalanes pay tribute to Saint George/Sant Jordi on their flag. The cross of Sant Jordi is the emblem of the regional government, the Generalitat de Cataluña, and it appears on the regional coat of arms. Two of these crosses are emblazoned across the autonomous community’s flag.

How many Saint Georges were there?
English people are familiar with the legend of Saint George, like a knight in shining armour, rescuing the beautiful princess from the clutches of a dragon in answer to her father’s heartfelt pleas. The tale recounts that the dragon had built a nest in the river that supplied the town’s irrigation, and for the inhabitants to collect water they had to sacrifice a human each time to the dragon, meaning that it became something of a popularity contest with a neighbour being voted by their so-called friends to face their destiny each day.

Other texts link the Saint George story to the Ancient Greek drama in which Perseus rescues the Ethiopian princess Andrómeda from the clutches of the gorgon, Medusa, and later marries her. Some versions of the tale situated the action in Libya, others in Egypt, some in Ancient Greece.

Dragons do not seem to enter into Cataluña’s version of the Saint George/Sant Jordi legend. Whilst the English depict him as riding a grey horse whilst fighting the fiery creature, the saint’s mount has a mere cameo role in the story. In Cataluña, however, Sant Jordi is considered to be the patron saint of horses, and of nobility, thanks to the help he gave King Pedro I of Aragón in a battle against the Islamic settlers in 1094. It was this monarch who bestowed upon Sant Jordi his equine-related sainthood.

Confusingly, though, there are documents dating back to the 8th century mentioning homage acts to Sant Jordi, a priest who fled to Italy, although it is not clear if he was the same saint and the dates have somehow become mixed up – unless he lived for over three hundred years.

Even further back, legend tells of a San Jorge who was born at the end of the 3rd century to Capadocia, a Roman army official, and Policromía, who returned with her son to her native city of Lydda (now Lod) in Israel when she was widowed.

This tale goes on to explain how San Jorge followed in his father’s footsteps and achieved a high ranking in the forces. This came to an abrupt end when he was tortured and decapitated on April 23, 303, after criticising the emperor’s decision to effect a persecution against the Christian population and revealed himself as a follower of said religion. So, unless there are three San Jorges, perhaps the saint in fact lived for over 800 years, having been resuscitated miraculously after his beheading at the hands of the all-powerful Diocleciano.

El Día de Sant Jordi
It was not until 15th century that Saint George’s Day, or El Día de San Jorge (Dia de Sant Jordi in catalán) began to be celebrated. Yet during these celebrations, little is mentioned of quadrupeds or noble behaviour – in fact, it has since been hijacked by another high-profile figure representative of Spain, and of England, too, as it happens.

In 1926, El Dia de Sant Jordi became International Book Day, or Día del Libro (Dia del Llibre in catalán) as it was on this date, April 23, that Don Quijote’s creator Miguel de Cervantes, and also William Shakespeare, died.

The ironic twist of fate that saw two national literary celebrities in two different countries pass on to the great library in the sky on the same day meant that both England and Spain marked the date for that reason, irrespective of saints on horses fighting dragons.

Cataluña combined the two eventually, turning Sant Jordi into one of the region’s most popular fiestas.  Book stalls line the streets and, while the music plays, the catalanes follow the 80-year tradition of buying a book to give to the one they love most. Generally, the books are novels in catalán, but given the festival’s popularity on an international scale it is likely that a few slip through the net in other languages, as tourists make up a significant minority of spectators.

When Sant Jordi’s day began to be celebrated 500 years ago, it was initially combined with Saint Valentine’s Day. On April 23 every year, custom dictated that people would give a flower – usually a rose - to the person they loved most. In 20th century, it became the norm for men to give their loved ones’ a rose and women to give their sweethearts a book, and the date is considered to be a celebration of love and culture. Nowadays, there is no gender division but plenty of flower and book stalls set up throughout the major towns and cities of the region.

The dragon tradition continues alive and well in Tarragona, however. On Monday night, the legend the English are more familiar with is re-enacted and in nearby Sant Climent Sescebes, the beast is heavily featured in the town’s costumed procession.

Elsewhere in Spain
Although Barcelona, Lleída and Tarragona are arguably the best places to be on April 23, Saint George, or San Jorge, is celebrated in other parts of Spain including the Comunitat Valenciana.

Alcoi’s world-renowned Moors and Christians festival is celebrated in honour of San Jorge, and this replay of the Christian Reconquest takes place in nearby Banyeres de Mariola, too, where every three years a theatre performance of the dragon legend is performed in public.
San Jorge is also the patron saint of Cáceres (Extremadura). On the night of April 22 – this Sunday – a giant dragon is erected and set fire to in the Plaza Mayor.

Since King Pedro I was able to conquer the city of Huesca with San Jorge’s help, the holy horseman is also the patron of Aragón. Although on a much smaller scale than in Cataluña, towns and villages throughout the region celebrate El Día de San Jorge on April 23, which is a public holiday, and his cross appears in the Aragonese coat of arms between the heads of four Moors.

The dragon-defying saint around the world
Just over the border in Portugal, San Jorge’s day will also be celebrated on Monday and, again, not just by the English expats. When the English conquered Lisboa in 1147, they brought with them the tradition of Saint George (although he was not elected patron of England until the 1340s) who, over the next two centuries, gradually replaced Santiago as the patron saint of Portugal. Finally, in 1386, the Anglo-Portuguese Alliance was signed uniting the two countries by more than simply their holy figure, an agreement that remains in force to this day as do the festivities on April 23.

Thanks to Spain and Portugal the tradition crossed the pond and is marked in Latin America, particularly amongst Afro-Brazilian inhabitants and in major Brazilian cities, including the capital, Río de Janeiro.

Greece gives more than a passing mention to the saint, where he is considered a religious martyr and as a result of the Andrómeda story, homage is also paid to Saint George in Ethiopia.

Throughout the former Roman empire his name comes up in lights to varying degrees – France, Italy, Malta, and also Russia, Georgia, Germany, and Ukraine. In some cases, Saint George’s cross appears on the coat of arms; in others, towns, villages, churches and squares are named after him.

In various parts of the world, Saint George is also credited with being the patron saint of all types of professions and activities – mainly action-packed ones, those with an element of danger and those that involve getting one’s hands dirty, such as farmers, soldiers, archers, ironmongers, mountaineers, Boy Scouts – and even prisoners.

Treading on San Antonio’s territory, George is also considered the guardian angel of domestic animals and a protector against skin complaints, plague, leprosy, certain STDs and, in Slav nations, eye disorders.

Book it in your diary
If you are the adventurous type, grab a last-minute hotel room somewhere in Aragón, the city of Cáceres or, better still, anywhere in Cataluña to celebrate San Jorge like the locals. Alternatively, head for Alcoi or Banyeres de Mariola during the Moors and Christians where, although San Jorge takes more of a back seat, there is no shortage of festivities.

Otherwise, act like the Spanish would and seek out an English pub. Whether you spend Monday receiving books and flowers from admirers, or washing down toad-in-the-hole and sticky toffee pudding with a pint of Tetley’s, the English amongst us can enjoy the full highlights of a long-standing Spanish fiesta whilst placating our patriotic side and making a meal of a festival that, sadly, usually passes unnoticed in our homeland.

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