Feast of St James
Santiago or Saint James, in English, is the Patron Saint of Spain. The annual Feast of Saint James (Dia de Santiago) takes places in Santiago de Compostela on 25th July and is a public holiday in Galicia. The city is one of the most emblematic in Spain and, whenever you visit, you can be sure to see many pilgrims – the religiously devout as well as those simply enjoying the scenic journey – who have taken the Camino de Santiago. Many of the walkers will carry the traditional walking staff – and each year over 100,000 pilgrims from about 100 countries will either walk 100 kilometres or cycle 200 kilometres in order to receive their Compostela, the official recognition from the Pilgrim’s Office in Santiago that they have successfully completed the camino.
The truly devout – as well as those who like the best parties – will visit Santiago in the days leading up to 25th July, which is both the Dia de Santiago and the Dia de Galica, Day of Galicia. As far back as AD 865, St Germain’s text, Martyrology, mentions the feast day and it was on July 25th 1120 that Santiago was given the supremacy of the churches in the west of Spain.
St James himself, San Tiago, is widely regarded as having visited Spain to preach Christianity during the Moorish occupation. His body was supposed to have been transported by a stone-built boat to Padrón on the Galician coast and then taken inland to be buried at what is now Santiago de Compostela. The grave was rediscovered in 813 by a hermit following a star – thereby giving us ‘Compostela’ – the field of the star. The most famous traditional tale claims that the saint miraculously appeared to fight for the Christian army during the battle of Clavijo during the Christian Reconquest. 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”.
The two weeks leading up to El Día de Santiago are full of art exhibitions, drama productions, indoor and outdoor concerts of all kinds of music and street entertainment – both professional and amateur. Almost every night there will be something going on in the major squares, Plaza del Obradoiro and Plaza de la Quintana. On the evening of 24th July, in the Plaza del Obradoiro, are the Fuegos del Apóstol – an incredible display of pyrotechnics that sees the side of the cathedral dramatically and unforgettably illuminated at midnight.
The feast day itself includes many official celebrations the most important of which is an official mass which is attended by representatives of the Galician government and often by members of the Spanish Royal family. Known as the King’s Offering to the Apostle, this is the occasion when the gigantic incense burner, the Botafumeiro, is swung down the cathedral aisles in breathtaking fashion almost touching the vaulted ceilings. The handlers of the botafumeiro, known as tiraboleiros, somehow guide its movements by ropes.
Botafumeiro is the Galician word for “smoke dispenser”. The most famous botafumeiro is the one in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. It is more than 1½ metres, weighs around 80kg and it takes eight people to swing it. Filling it with incense is expensive so it is only used at certain pilgrims’ masses usually on religious holidays and when tour groups have paid for it to be swung. Interested parties can make bookings at least a day in advance at Sacristy of the Cathedral or by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
On the day of the Feast of Saint James the streets of Santiago de Compostela are lined with people watching processions of different carnival groups, papier-mâché cabezudos and a multitude of Galician pipers. The dancing, music, eating and drink continue well into the next morning. Much emphasis is placed on the eating of oysters or scallops in order to ensure that the following year is wealthy and healthy.
For those wondering why the scallop shell is regarded as a symbol of Santiago, it has symbolic, practical and legendary connections. Symbolically the shell, with its grooves coming together in a single focal point, represents the different paths to Santiago. Practically a scallop shell, plentiful on the coasts of Galicia, was an ideal utensil for a pilgrim to both drink and eat from. Finally, legend records that Saint James himself rescued a knight from the sea covered in scallop shells.
Santiago de Compostela is a beguiling city full of historical and religious atmosphere but also, with its large student population, a vibrant, lively place to visit. Around the time of the Día de Santiago it is remarkably busy, but especially worth visiting. Should July 25th happen to fall on a Sunday then the day becomes more special. The year itself is proclaimed to be a Xabobean Year and there are, astonishingly, even greater celebrations than usual.