Susan Withee, Adult Services Manager
The Barcelona Book and Rose Fair takes place every April 23 on the feast day of St. George, patron saint of Catalonia. The streets and squares are lined with stalls selling roses and books of all sorts, and the annual Roses Fair, symbolic of the arrival of spring, takes place at the Palace of the Government as it has since the 15 th century. For the Catalan people, particularly in Barcelona, the Day of the Book and the Rose has become a beloved holiday that combines the book as a symbol of culture and the rose as a symbol of love. The custom on the day is for men to give roses to their sweethearts or wives and for women to reciprocate with the gift of a book. By the end of the day in Barcelona, nearly 1 million books have been sold and over 4 million roses, whose many colors have unspoken meanings, have been purchased and presented.
As is usually the case with customs and traditions, the origins of this day are complex and historically hazy. It all began with St. George, a legendary knight and martyr of the Middle Ages. The most famous legend about St. George was the story of his victory over a dragon that had terrorized a country and could only be appeased with the sacrifice of a lamb or a young maiden. One day, the king’s daughter was the dragon’s chosen victim, but St. George, with sword and shield, slayed the dragon and set the princess free. On the place where the dragon’s blood was spilled, a rose grew as a symbol of love and friendship.
St. George received profound devotion in Medieval Europe. He was revered as the patron saint of knights and victory in battle, he symbolized courtly love, and he was honored as the protector of lovers. The people of Georgia, Serbia, England, Greece, Aragon, and Catalonia all chose him as their patron saint. The Catalan people of northeastern Spain embraced St. George as their own as early as the 8th century. By the 14th century his feast day became an official celebration, and by the 15th century the day was honored with the annual Roses Fair in Barcelona.
Fast forward to 1926 when Spain established St. George’s Day, the 23rd of April, as the Day of the Book, in honor of the anniversary of the death of Miguel de Cervantes, Spanish novelist, poet, and soldier on that day in 1616. This yearly celebration took root especially strongly in Barcelona, beautiful and vibrant capital city of Catalonia, and became a hugely popular holiday known as the Day of the Book and the Rose.
Meanwhile, in England, St. George’s Day was also a national holiday and, as chance would have it, April 23, 1616, was also the anniversary of both the birth and the death of none other than, you guessed it, William Shakespeare. Soon, the Day of the Book and the Rose began to catch on in England and other European countries as well, and became a day honoring both Cervantes and Shakespeare as well as a day for romance and roses. In 1995, UNESCO, recognizing the powerful historical importance of books in the diffusion of knowledge, designated the 23rd of April “International Day of the Book and Copyright.” (Not quite the romantic resonance of the Book and the Rose, but we won’t quibble.)
In recent years, the International Day of the Book, also known as World Book Day or World Book Night, is making headway in the US as a time to promote the importance of reading and to share the love of books. This year, Manhattan Public Library is excited to bring World Book Night 2014, in a modest but heartfelt way, to the people of the Little Apple. Thanks to a generous grant from the World Book Night US organization, Manhattan Public Library will receive books for distribution and on the evening of Wednesday, April 23, MPL staff will visit Aggieville and other popular local venues to give away books and chat with people about books and reading. (Roses will also make a symbolic appearance!)
Romantics, book lovers, devotees of St. George, and Shakespeare/Cervantes enthusiasts among you may want to start your own April 23 tradition. You can borrow from the Day of the Book and the Rose, or you can go with an updated interpretation all your own. For those interested in learning more about World Book Night US and how to get involved for World Book Night 2015, visit their website at http://www.us.worldbooknight.org/.