On this Day of St George, A New Way of Celebrating is Needed

Many people feel uneasy when it comes to gathering around the red and white flag on St George's Day, and who can blame them?Today it will typically adorn village fetes in the depths of the English countryside, where Morris dancers are top of the bill. It will be hung outside pubs with Jerusalem on repeat inside, or used by far-right organisations suggesting English identity is synonymous with aggression, intolerance and division. And undoubtedly Nigel Farage will gift the media with a few hundred snaps of him waving the flag to reinforce an idea of England which many fail to identify with. The red and white of St George isn’t the rallying call it could be for contemporary England; rather it’s a thorn in the side of English identity.

Not in Catalonia. St George also happens to be the Spanish region’s patron saint, and today they’ll be doing things a little differently. Known locally as Sant Jordi, Catalans will exchange roses for a books with their friend, loved ones or family members. No tinkling from the bells taped to an ankle; no chanting; no anti-immigrant subtext - rather mountains of books and boxes of roses stacked on the bookstalls that will crowd Barcelona and other towns and cities on St George’s day. Hundreds of authors participate in signings throughout that day and schools partially close as older students have their lessons postponed to take to the streets to sell roses. Local news organisations estimate some 7 million roses will be sold today in a region with 7.5 million inhabitants.

Catalonia’s version is an example of how patriotism can have progressive values

The giving and receiving of roses and books in Catalonia adds a different perspective to St George’s Day. Generosity, kindness, love and learning are publicly celebrated here in Barcelona. A day that across England induces chest-beating patriotism among some and, among others, a denial of the place of nationalism, is transformed in the hands of the Catalans.

Catalonia’s version is an example of how patriotism can have progressive values embedded within it. It shows how nationalism isn’t necessarily an ideology that breeds division and prejudice, but that it can eliminate barriers between people – and all under the guise of good old St George. His red and white shield is a symbol of knowledge, tolerance and understanding. The English shouldn’t neglect national celebrations; as Catalonia shows, such events can be an excellent way for communities to express themselves in a more progressive way.

For too long it’s been a day only for the far right or the conservative-minded to pronounce their Englishness

Fortunately for us, Catalonia’s St George’s Day has been entirely constructed. Originally, it was a day for lovers. According to the legend, St George was a brave knight who killed a dragon to save his princess. The dead beast’s blood gave life to a rosebush, from which the knight picked a flower for his recently saved love. St George’s Day evolved in 1923 when a canny Barcelona-based bookseller began a campaign to sell a book along with a rose. His plan was aided by the fact that April 23rd is the anniversary of the death of Miguel de Cervantes. Since 1996, April 23rd has become World Book Day and today the Catalan publishing industry  expects to make about 8% of its annual sales. 

Catalonia’s ability to synthesise these two elements when celebrating their patron saint should be a cause of celebration and inspiration for the English. Linking St George’s day to a romantic tale and adding the gift of literature, gives a virtue-based foundation to a day where the English articulate to themselves and others who they are. For too long it’s been a day only for the far right or the conservative-minded to pronounce their Englishness, stopping millions of English citizens participating in proudly pronouncing that they too happen to be English.

In fact, some in England are already trying to export the Catalan version of St George and make England’s national day synonymous with the civic virtues of generosity and learning. On Sunday in Borough Market, Newham Bookshop and Barcelona’s Instut Ramon Llull will be bringing a bookstall to the market, along with a few bags of Catalan books and roses. Their efforts are made significantly easier should their actions gain ground: England too has an author of equal standing to Cervantes that passed away on this very day: Shakespeare.

St George's Day in Catalonia shows how a community can rally around a virtue-based model of national identity. Instead of uniting behind a patron saint that symbolises the right, let's take the day back and let it symbolise the civic virtues of generosity and learning. Let's give each other a book and a rose next year.

Christopher Finnigan is a journalist based in Barcelona and can be found tweeting @chrisjfinnigan.

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