Saint James, or San Tiago in Spanish, is the patron saint of Spain and Galicia. His feast day (Día de Santiago) falls on 25th July. It is a public holiday in Galicia where the city Santiago de Compostela is named after him.
St James, one of the twelve apostles, is believed to have arrived in Spain to preach Christianity following the death of Jesus. In 40AD, the Virgin Mary appeared in dreams to the apostle telling them of her impending death.
James headed back to Jerusalem – no easy trip. He was captured and beheaded for heresy by King Herod Agrippa I in 44 AD. Although he died in Jerusalem, his remains were brought back to Galicia.
During the first years of the Reconquista, some peasants sounded the alarm. They swore after following a star they were guided to the tomb of the apostle. King Alfonso of Asturias ordered a church to be built over the burial site, which was the origin of the future Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Compostela comes from the two words for field and star in Galician.
The most famous tale claims the saint miraculously appeared to fight for the Christian army during the battle of Clavijo. Following this, Santiago was also known as Matamoros, the Moor slayer. The traditional Spanish call to arms has been Santiago y cierra España – “St James and strike for Spain”.
As well as the start of the cathedral, it was also the beginning of the Camino de Santiago – a network connecting the Christian kingdoms of Spain, ensuring logistical support and communication.
The feast day
As far back as AD 865, the St Germain’s text, Martyrology, mentions the feast day and it was on July 25th 1120, Santiago was given the supremacy of the churches in the west of Spain.
It is a public holiday in Galicia and celebrated with parades, dancing, music, eating and drinking. Emphasis is on the eating of oysters or scallops to ensure the following year is wealthy and healthy.
Representatives of the Galician government, and sometimes members of the Spanish royal family, attend the official mass in the Cathedral at Santiago de Compostela.
In a ritual which is known as the King’s Offering to the Apostle, a gigantic incense burner, the botafumeiro, is swung down the cathedral aisles. It is an awesome sight as it makes its way along the cathedral, tiraboleiros guiding it by ropes.
Celebrating St James, 2021, in Santiago de Compostela
From 20 to 31 July, Santiago will host the Festivities of the Apostle. This year celebrates 100 years of life, and with a performance in the Plaza del Obradoiro on the same day that will combine music and humour.
There will also be concerts, monologues, open-air cinema, circus, sport, shows for the little ones and the now classic “cabezudos”. On the 24th, there is a spectacular firework display.
The full programme, in Spanish, can be found here.