Sant Jordi:
Patron Saint of Catalunya

🕔 7 mins (total)
Sweethearts in Catalunya exchange books and red roses on St Jordi’s Day.
Sweethearts in Catalunya exchange books and red roses on St Jordi’s Day.

The Baix Empordà town of Calonge was officially inaugurated as a Book Town in December 2021, and there are plans to become a full member of the International Organisation of Book Towns in due course. St. Jordi’s Day on 23 April is surely now their favourite day of the year, as the custom in this part of the world is that lovers and sweethearts exchange red roses and books on that day – that is, guys give girls a red rose, while the girls give the guys a book.

While in many other parts of the world St Valentine’s Day is the day for lovers (and here too, to a slightly lesser extent), in Catalunya, that day for most local people is St Jordi’s Day – and at least here the blokes get something out of it too! There are regular book-related events in Calonge all year long, and on the 23rd, there’s usually a live concert in the town, to help mark the day that’s in it.

So, Feliç Dia de Sant Jordi, Calonge Book Town!

Jordi the Catalan

So, in case you didn’t know, Sant Jordi is the patron saint of Catalunya (among a number of other places – more on that in a while), and his feast day is 23 April. No doubt you’ll have seen flags bearing the Cross of St Jordi flying throughout the region (very often alongside the Catalan Independentista flag, the Estelada).

If you happen to be British, or more specifically English, you may have thought at first that those were English flags and there was a large English colony here or that the locals had a special love for England and all things English. Not so! That is to say, they probably have no problem with the English, but the flag is their own and represents their beloved Sant Jordi.

The Cross of St Jordi even makes it onto the crest of F.C. Barcelona and that’s about as Catalan as you can get! The name “Jordi”, of course, is very Catalan, as becomes obvious when you start meeting the locals as it seems about half of Catalan males are called by that name! In Castellano Spanish that becomes “San Jorge” and in English, he’s “St George”.

The crest of F.C. Barcelona with the St. Jordi cross at top left
The crest of F.C. Barcelona with the St. Jordi cross at top left

So, how did Jordi become the patron saint of Catalunya?

Well, for one thing, he’s not just a patron saint in Catalunya. St Jordi was the patron saint of the entire Crown of Aragón, which ruled over a confederation of kingdoms including Aragón, Catalunya, Valencia, Balearic Islands, Sicily, Corsica, Sardinia, Malta and southern Italy during the Middle Ages. St Jordi has remained the patron saint here in Catalunya and Aragón ever since.

He is also one of the patron saints of Portugal, where he replaced São Diego (Santiago/St. James), and, through colonization, Brazil. Saint George is the patron saint of England as well, one of the constituent parts of the U.K. and his cross is one of those incorporated in the Union Jack flag. He is also patron saint of a number of lands formerly occupied by the British, including Jamaica, Belize, India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Palestine, Tanzania, Kenya and South Africa. In Europe, he is among the patron saints of Lithuania, Latvia, Germany, Ukraine, Romania, Moldova, Greece and Turkey – where he was supposedly actually from!

In many of those countries, he is really only nominally a patron saint, but in the African country of Ethiopia he became a symbol of nationalism during the invasion of the country by Italy and remains patron saint and part of contemporary culture to this day.

Nowhere, though, is St George more venerated than in the country of Georgia, whose official flag since 2004 is the George’s Cross, with four smaller George’s Crosses in each of the four corners. One would be forgiven for also assuming that the country bears his name, but, in fact, the name of the country came from an old Persian name for the region – Gurğān (Land of the Wolf) – and St. George’s popularity there was in fact due to his name sounding like the country’s, and not the other way around!

The flag of the Caucasian country of Georgia
The flag of the Caucasian country of Georgia

But what about Catalunya?!

Yes, back to Catalunya! Well, Jordi became the patron saint of most of the aforementioned European countries thanks to the Crusades. The red cross was mostly associated with the Templar Knights during the Second Crusade (1145) but came to be used especially during the Third Crusade (1189-92) as an identifying symbol of French and English troops, and it was also during this crusade that the legend of Saint Jordi became known to the crusading soldiers.

Although the red cross on a white background wasn’t actually associated with Jordi himself until a couple of centuries later, nonetheless, the returning crusader knights brought the legend of the saint back to Europe with them to their various countries, and the legend morphed and was embellished the more it was told.

The man, the myth, and the dragon

And so to the legend itself! Long, long ago, in Cappadocia… Yes, the whole story is supposed to have taken place around 300 AD in what is eastern Turkey nowadays, but what was at that time a Province of the Roman Empire. A dragon in the region had been terrorizing the local population, demanding that they give him a couple of lambs each day for him to eat. When they ran out of lambs, they were forced to start feeding him a human a day instead, to be chosen by the drawing of lots.

Depending on the version, either a beloved princess drew the short straw one day, OR the locals, fed up with no royals ever being selected, insisted that it was her turn to be fed to the dragon. In any case, as often happens in such stories, a handsome young prince on horseback – yep, you’ve guessed what his name was! – just happened to be passing by and, learning of the princess’ fate, fought and wounded the dragon, subduing it sufficiently to bring it back to the kingdom in chains.

The people there were still terrified of the dragon, despite it being wounded, and our prince – who, don’t forget, was a Roman and also a Christian – offered to kill it if they all converted to Christianity, which they promptly did. Where this was all supposed to have taken place depended on where the tale was being told – originally Turkey, but other versions have it in Libya, Palestine, Bulgaria, Serbia, Georgia etc; take your pick! – but in the Catalan version, it supposedly happened somewhere in Tarragona.

Wherever it was, when the bold and brave Prince Jordi pierced the poor, wounded, defenceless dragon’s heart, its red blood began to flow. From this red blood instantly grew a red rose, which Jordi then gave to the princess; hence the tradition of guys giving girls a red rose on St Jordi’s Day!

St Jordi killing the dragon on a building facade in Barcelona
St Jordi killing the dragon on a building facade in Barcelona

And the books?

As mentioned, the legend of Sant Jordi only came back to Europe from the Crusades in medieval times, and the rose tradition goes back to then. Women giving men books in exchange is a much more recent custom and really only popular in Catalunya. Back in the 1920s, Barcelona was a major centre for book publishing, and in 1929 the Day of St Jordi was also designated the official Catalan Day of the Book. Today 23 April is UNESCO World Book Day.

Originally, the date chosen was 7 October, the birthday of Miguel de Cervantes (author of Don Quixote), but later it was switched to 23 April to commemorate William Shakespeare as well as Cervantes, as both men supposedly died on the same day, 23 April 1616 – allegedly Shakespeare’s birthday too, coincidentally! In an interesting anecdote, neither man actually died on that day, as Cervantes died on the 22nd but was buried on the 23rd. Shakespeare’s death was recorded as occurring on 23 April, but that was in the Julian calendar that was in use in Britain at the time. In the Gregorian calendar used today that replaced the Julian, that would have been 3 May!

Contemporaries: William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
Contemporaries: William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

Never let the truth get in the way of a good tale!

So, there you have it – kind of! Obviously, nobody knows the real story of St Jordi, but it is believed he was Greek-Cappadocian and a Christian living in the not-yet-Christian Roman Empire and that he was martyred in 303 AD for refusing to renounce his faith. We do know that the various composite legends that later became the tale of St Jordi mostly come from southern Eastern Europe, the Middle East and the Caucasus region and that many of those legends were even pre-Christian.

By the time of the Crusades, he was already a “soldier-saint” in the Christian church and was credited with miraculous military intervention in the Battle of Alcoraz (1094-96), near Huesca in Aragón, between Christian and Moorish armies, and then he must have fairly legged it to the “Holy Land” where Frankish crusaders claimed to have seen him as an angel fighting alongside them in Antioch and Jerusalem during the First Crusade (1096-99).

Whatever about any of that, we reckon that whatever gets people out buying books and roses for each other on St Jordi’s Day – also Catalan Book Day, don’t forget! – can’t be all nonsense!

Feliç Dia de Sant Jordí!

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