One of my favourite things that I learned last Christmas was the Icelandic tradition of Jolabokaflod, where my understanding of it is that you read books and eat chocolate well into the night on Christmas Eve. In a true spirit of solidarity, I’m happy to say that I’ve been keeping the tradition going most weekends since. In a similar vein, and since I write books set in Catalonia, and since today is the Diada de Sant Jordi, and since I really need to stop eating quite so much chocolate, I reckon it’s time I did my bit to promote another book-giving tradition, this time the Catalan practice of giving someone you love a book and a red rose on 23rd April. Bear with me and I’ll tell you a bit about how it all started and then you can rush out and look for a book and a rose.
The rose bit is the oldest part of it all. No one’s entirely sure how it got started, but there are records of it dating back to the fifteenth century, when men would give women a red rose. Some say it refers to the legend of a rose growing from the blood of the dragon slayed by Saint George (Sant Jordi in Catalonia) that he then gave to the princess; to others it’s simply a symbol of romantic love. Either way, it’s a symbol that’s continued to evolve over the years and taken on a strong sense of pride in Catalonia. Throughout the Franco years, giving a rose and a book – and by doing so celebrating a uniquely Catalan tradition – was a way of cocking a Catalan snook at a regime that was doing everything in its power to diminish Catalan identity. In recent years, the rose itself has developed a symbolism ever more closely rooted in a spirit of independence. When you buy one, it’s normally wrapped with a piece of ribbon in the colours of the Catalan flag – four red stripes on a yellow background – to show the local roots of the tradition, and it comes with an ear of corn to symbolise fertility. A wish for love, independence and prosperity in one neat bundle.
The tradition of giving a book is more recent. Originally the idea of a Valencian writer and publisher based in Barcelona as a way of promoting books and reading, it was celebrated at first on 7th October, Cervantes’ birthday, throughout Spain. But this idea that quickly spread in Catalonia fizzled out just as speedily in Spain, so in the 1930s Catalonia switched the date to 23rd April, to mark Cervantes’ death. That’s what set it on the path to becoming a distinctly Catalan festival. In the early days, the tradition was that the man gave the woman a rose and the woman gave the man a book, but changing times have meant that it’s evolved. Now, it’s more usual for men and women to give each other both a book and a rose. And it’s not stopping there: parents make the most of the day to give their children books, friends give each other books and roses, and children buy armfuls of roses for parents and grandparents. Some hospitals give books to patients, while children make roses and dragons to give as presents. Charities and NGOs use the day to raise both funds and awareness of the work they do.
In all, some six million roses will be sold today alone, that’s 40% of all the roses sold in a year, and readers will buy and give as presents over one and half million books. All in one day. If you just take Barcelona, it will have five thousand stands, four thousand of them selling roses and a thousand selling books. Little wonder that the city council wants to extend the whole tradition and turn it into a week-long festival of love and literature. Which, quite frankly, gets my vote.
So my suggestion for you is to put the chocolate down for one day and show someone you love them by giving them a book and a rose. If you happen to be in Catalonia right now, that won’t be too difficult, as the streets will be packed wall-to-wall with stalls selling books and you’ll hardly be able to move for trestle tables laden with roses for sale. If you’re somewhere else, like I am, you’ll have to show a bit more imagination. But that’s love for you. And reading.