Saint James’ Day – Patron Saint of Spain and Pilgrims



Written by Shenda

Who Was Saint James?

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.

In Spain, you may hear Saint James called Santiago or Sant Iago.

James was among the first to be called to the discipleship of Jesus

Saint James

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.

James was one of those closest to Jesus. James, 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, James reportedly had an apparition of the Virgin Mary in Zaragoza. 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. He was later beheaded with a sword.  It is believed that he was the first apostle to be martyred for his faith. James’ is the only execution recorded in the New Testament.

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Saint James and Spain

The Relics of Saint James the Greater

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. They 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. The location of his grave is now known as Santiago de Compostela.

His remains lay there undisturbed until they were discovered by a shepherd in the 9th Century. 

King Alfonso II made the first pilgrimage to the relics. After his journey, he provided protection along the route for those making the pilgrimage to visit the relics of Saint James. And so began the Camino de Santiago.

There have been doubts over the authenticity of the relics of Saint James. There is a conflicting belief that his relics were taken and kept in a church in Toulouse in France. It is possible 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 and Battles

Saint James Battle of Clavijo

Saint James’ relics are not the only connection that the Apostle has 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.

Saint James Feast Day

Saint James is the patron saint of Galicia and the whole of Spain. He is also the patron of pilgrims.

His feast day is celebrated on the 25th of July. This is a very special day for the Camino de Santiago and it is worth trying to be in Santiago to experience the celebrations.

In Santiago de Compostela the celebrations begin 10 days before July 25th. There is a noticeable increase in the number of pilgrims arriving in the city during this period.

The festivities around Saint James’ Day include exhibitions, theatre performances, street theatre and concerts. 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 wonderful light show on the front of the cathedral. The meeting of new lighting technology on the old cathedral is brilliant to watch. Every year it is different, so if you can be there in person we thoroughly recommend it!

As this is a religious celebration there are also many special church services. They usually focus on 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 of July. At this service, the church officials will swing the Botafumeiro, which is a sight to behold.

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The Botafumeiro in the St James Cathedral

Tiraboleiros preparing the Botafumeiro.

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.

Discover The Way of Saint James For Yourself!

Join the hundreds of pilgrims who walk the Way of Saint James to Santiago de Compostela each year. Follow the Camino is a leading Camino operator, offering customised Camino itineraries to suit any level and preferences. We have decades of experience in offering walking holidays on the Camino, so your travel plans and support are in great hands.

Start planning your journey on the Camino de Santiago today by getting in touch with our expert Camino Planners. We can answer all your questions and help you to plan the Camino of a lifetime.

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Originally published on 27th July 2020

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