Día del libro is the best. Falling on April 23rd of each year, Día del libro represents a fascinating chorus of cultures and history. It also bridges leisure’s gap between spring break and Labor Day in Spain (May 1st). Though not a bank holiday, it is very significant. Come April, one can see signs of Día del libro all over Madrid or any other city in Spain. These signs may include books (obviously), roses, dragons, blood, knights, and princesses. It’s not just one day, it’s an entire week of festivities. Here in Madrid, there’s La Noche de los libros —if you’re thinking this sounds like a party, it is.
During the week preceding Día del libro, Madrid buzzes with literary activity. Most events happen during Madrid’s La Noche de los libros, which falls on Friday the 21st in 2017. On La Noche de los libros, people stay out late into the night celebrating the written and performed word. There are events in the street, cultural centers, libraries, and bookstores. Events include but are not limited to author appearances, readings, theater, music, street art, pop-up bookstores, and discounts. Authors come from all over the world. For example, 2017’s big international writer is Irvine Welsh, author of Trainspotting. Previous years have seen writers such as Amy Tan and Salman Rushdie. 2017 also marks the centenary of Gloria Fuertes’ birth. Fuertes was a famous poet from Madrid and there will be special activities related to her life and work. Check out the Comunidad de Madrid’s official La Noche de los Libros website and Instituto Cervantes’ Semana Cervantina page for more information about what to do this year.
If you teach, the weeks preceding and following Día del libro are a perfect excuse to introduce students to your favorite books. Consider organizing a reader’s theater or simply reading one of your favorite texts aloud to your classes. Most schools will have planned activities. At my school, each teacher has prepared a poem to recite. There will also be a story-writing contest and a school-wide murder mystery challenge.
If you remain skeptical as to the awesomeness of Día del libro, consider this: according to Spanish tradition, lovers exchange a book and/or a red rose on April 23rd. Though historically men got the books and women got the roses, times have changed: a rose is for everyone, as is reading. If you don’t like presents, or roses remind you too much of Valentine’s Day, then leave on the thorns, write an anti-poem, tell an inappropriate joke —that’s right, even if you’re cynical, deadpan, and you hug with sarcasm, any rotten modifications you want to make to this tradition are completely acceptable. If they don’t understand, blame them and not Dia del libro. Your darkness is poetry and poetry in the broad sense is what Día del libro is all about.
The rose and the book each have very meaningful yet previously unrelated histories. Today, these symbols unite these separate histories. To give you an idea of the full backstory of this tradition, we must first take a trip back to the rise of Christianity and the fall of the Roman Empire.
San Jorge —Sant Jordi in Catalunya— was a Christian martyr. He was born sometime late in the second half of the 3rd century CE, in a town that is now part of Turkey. His dad was a soldier and after his dad died, he and his mother moved to the area that is modern-day Israel. Somehow, Jorge managed to return to his homeland and become a guard for the famous Roman Emperor named Diocletian in the lost city of Nicomedia. Now, Diocletian wasn’t your run-of-the-mill dude. He has the distinction of 1) orchestrating the last and greatest persecution of the Christians under the Empire, 2) preceding the first Christian Emperor of the Roman Empire, Constantine, and 3) being the only Emperor to abdicate in the history of the Roman Empire. Unfortunately, Jorge got caught up in number 1, AKA the Great Persecution. Right at the beginning of the 4th century, Diocletian basically outlawed being Christian. Following some serious political turmoil and destruction of property, Diocletian blamed the Christians for the ruckus and started killing Christians in very inhumane ways. Jorge didn’t want join the persecutors, so he was considered Christian. He was tortured and decapitated on April 23rd, 303 CE. He was canonized in 494 CE.
At some point during the 9th century, people in Europe started writing fairytales with kings, queens, knights, and dragons —a la King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table (though this story came later). Around the 12th century, some fables were written that remixed the saints with these sword/dragon fairytales. According to the remixed legend about San Jorge, a town is being harassed by a dragon who demands daily human sacrifice. Each day the townsfolk do a lottery to decide who will be the dragon’s meal. Fair’s fair. But one day the King’s beautiful daughter is the unlucky winner. When she goes to face her fate, a knight on a white horse appears. That knight is none other than San Jorge. San Jorge slays the dragon, leaving drops of its blood on the ground. Where the blood fell grew a red rose. That’s the rose in the rose and book combo —the rose is dead dragon blood, for those of you who are still thinking Valentine’s Day. Later, the Crusades spread these stories all over Europe and into the Iberian Peninsula. Sant Jordi became the patron saint of knights and earned a soft spot in the hearts of the Kingdoms of Aragon and of Catalunya. Sant Jordi has been celebrated on April 23rd ever since.
The book, on the other hand, only came into the picture in the 20th century, in 1926 to be exact. In 1918, Vicente Clavel Andrés, a Valencian editor, journalist, and translator living in Barcelona, began pushing for a commemorative day for Spanish literature. His work eventually paid off: in 1926, King Alfonso XII decreed that April 23rd of every year would be the Fiesta del libro español. All involved agreed that April 23rd would be a reasonable day, since it is the day that both Cervantes and Shakespeare died (sort of). Thus book was added to rose in 1926.
Javier Marías (Spanish author) personal dedication
Since its humble beginnings, Día del libro has continued to expand, absorbing new writers and newly dead writers and inspiring new prizes, events, and ceremonies. In 1976, Spain created the Premio Cervantes, the international Spanish language literature award. It’s like the Academy Award for Best Picture but for books written in Spanish and it’s awarded on April 23rd. Día del libro also has international significance. In 1995, UNESCO declared April 23rd of each year as World Book and Copyright Day. Since that year, UNESCO has helped gather and diffuse information about Book Day and its events taking place worldwide. While Spain is the best place to celebrate Día del libro, it’s a party that you can take with you anywhere in the world.
Activities in the Comunidad de Madrid:
La Noche de los Libros
Semana Cervantina, Instituto Cervantes