Saint James Background
Saint James was one of the twelve apostles of Jesus. He was the son of Zebedee and the brother of John the Apostle. James is also known as Saint James the Greater to distinguish him from the other apostle James, son of Alphaeus.
The apostle is called the Greater as it is believed he was taller than James, son of Alphaeus. Another explanation for why he was called James the Greater is that he was closer to Jesus than James, son of Alphaeus, who was thus known as James the Less.
James was among the first to be called to the discipleship of Jesus
James was among the first to be called to the discipleship of Jesus alongside his younger brother John. During his time with Jesus, James and his brother John were known for their fiery temperament. This is demonstrated in Luke 9:54, when a Samaritan village refused to receive Jesus, they asked Jesus “wouldst thou have us bid fire come down from heaven, and consume them?”.
Jesus rebuked them and reminded them that the “Son of Man has come to save men’s lives, not to destroy them.” James though was also one of those closest to Jesus and along with Peter and John were the only apostles to witness his transfiguration.
After Christ’s death James worked to spread the word of Christ across Israel and Spain. Whilst in Spain, according to tradition, James had an apparition of the Virgin Mary in Zaragoza and the Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar was built in veneration of this.
In 44AD he returned to Jerusalem where Herod Agrippa I, grandson of Herod the Great, had him arrested and beheaded him with a sword. It is believed that he was the first apostle to be martyred for his faith as his is the only execution recorded in the New Testament.
Saint James and Spain
After James was beheaded his remains were taken by his disciples to Spain. It is said that they set sail on a boat at night with no rudder or steersman and trusted in God that they would arrive with the assistance of the Angles.
They landed at Padrón on the coast and took his body inland to be buried at what is now known as Santiago de Compostela.
St James remains
His remains led there undisturbed until they were discovered by a shepherd in the 9th Century. King Alfonso II made the first pilgrimage to the relics and afterwards provided protection along the route for those making the pilgrimage to visit the relics of Saint James, and so began the Camino de Santiago.
This is not the only connection of Saint James to Spain. Spanish legend has it that during the legendary Battle of Clavijo Saint James appeared to fight for the Christians against the Moor invaders. From this came the traditional battle cry of the Spanish armies during medieval times ¡Santiago, y cierra, España!
During the 12th century the military Order of Santiago or The Order of St James of the Sword was founded. Initially they were established to fight the Moorish invaders and protect the pilgrims of St James’ Way. It survives today as a religious order of honour.
There have been doubts over the authenticity of the relics of Saint James. There is a conflicting belief that his relics where in fact taken and kept in a church in Toulouse in France. It is not entirely improbable that his relics would have been divided between two churches. However a strong endorsement of the relics at Santiago was in the Bull of Pope Leo XIII in 1884.
Saint James Feast Day
Saint James is the patron saint of not only Galicia but the whole of Spain. He is also the patron of pilgrims. His feast day is celebrated on the 25th July and for the Camino de Santiago this is a very special day and one you would want to be in Santiago for.
In Santiago de Compostela the celebrations begin 10 days before July 25th and there is a noticeable increase in the number of pilgrims arriving in the city during this period. During the 10 days leading up to July 25th there are exhibitions, theatre performances, street theatre and concerts each day to celebrate the feastday of Saint James. Throughout the area regional dances and bagpipes will be seen and heard along with many other open-air celebrations.
On July 24th the real festivities begin, that night there is a unique and unmatched light show on the front of the cathedral. This is a truly modern sight to behold that if you can be therefore you should not miss. Every year it is different, so you will know that you are watching something new if you happen to catch it.
As this is a religious celebration there are also many special services in churches to honour the life and work of Saint James throughout Spain. At the Cathedral de Santiago there is a special service on the feast day, the 25th July. At this service the church officials will swing the Botafumeiro, which is a sight to behold.
The Botafumeiro in the St James Cathedral
The Botafumeiro in the Cathedral is a very large incense burner that takes 8 people to swing and is one of the largest in the world. As the Botafumeiro swings it will fill the Cathedral with its smoke and sweet aroma. Timing your Camino with the festivals celebrating Saint James’ Day can make for an unforgettable experience.
Check out our video clip on The Arrival of St. James here for more information on the Saint.
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Originally published on 27th July 2017, updated on