day of the rose

el dia de la rosa

As a young little thing living in Barcelona at the tender age of 21, I recall waking up excitedly on the 23rd of April and heading to the markets. I picked out a variety of seafood, wine, cheese and a fresh loaf of bread to prepare a meal at home. It was one of the most significant, important and loveliest days of the year and I wanted to pay tribute to it. At every stall I was handed a red rose and a smile. The day was Sant Jordi or el dia de la rosa, the day of the rose.

Naomi and her rose

In contrast to the rather dull, cringeworthy and commercial holiday known in the Western world as Valentine’s Day, the patron saint day celebrated throughout Catalonia is a day of real, unvanquishable love, shown most potently via the exchange of the world’s most precious gift – books. Gifts are exchanged between sweethearts, loved ones and people you respect. Traditionally men gave women roses while the women gave their men a book. ‘A rose for love and a book forever’. These days both men and women gift books in a gesture of equality.

Bookstores across the city are filled with people in the days leading up to and on the day itself. The festival adopted the element of books as part of a yearly event organised by UNESCO to promote reading, publishing and copyright, and is known as International Day of the Book. It is also Spain’s way of honouring Miguel de Cervantes who died on that day. It is also said to be the anniversary of the birth and death of this dude William Shakespeare, you might know him.

It is no surprise that Barcelona brings together love and literacy in such a spectacularly romantic fashion.

Thousands of rose stands and makeshift bookstalls litter the city just for the occasion. In just one day, some four million roses and 800,000 books are sold. Half of the total yearly book sales in Catalonia take place on this day. It’s also the only day of the year when the Palau de la Generalitat (Barcelona’s magnificent main government building in the centre) is open to the public.

On this day three years ago, I was gifted the 20 love poems of Pablo Neruda and Mario Benedetti, a bouquet of roses and individual roses too. I rode around the city on a bicycle and drank coffee over a glass of ice in a small, hidden square in the old city. At the end of the day I found this poem written in a book I had kept throughout the year, where people left me messages that I was only allowed to read on the plane trip home exactly one year later (or as I like to call it the PLANE TRIP OF TEARS).

Cultivo una rosa blanca
en junio como enero
para el amigo sincero
que me da su mano franca.

Y para el cruel que me arranca
el corazón con que vivo,
cardo ni ortiga cultivo;
cultivo la rosa blanca.

– José Martí

Felic Sant Jordi to all. I wish you an abundance of roses and books wherever you are in the world.

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