Santiago, or St James in English, was one of Jesus’s disciples and travelled to Spain to preach the Christian belief. He returned to Jerusalem and was promptly beheaded by King Herod. His followers managed to return his body to Spain although the exact site of his burial was lost over time. According to legend, his tomb was found in the ninth century by a hermit who saw strange lights and heard noises in a wood near where it was thought that St James had been buried. The hermit reported these strange phenomena to the Bishop who set out to investigate. A body was found, accompanied by two others which were believed to be the bodies of the two people who had been sent with Santiago’s body to guard over it and who, when they in time died, had been buried next to him.
Legend of Santiago
King Alfonso II ordered a church to be built on the site which has now evolved into the magnificent building which is the Basilica of Santiago de Compostela. What really set St James up as patron saint of Spain was the legend of the Battle of Clavijo between the Spanish and the Moors, who had invaded most of Spain in the eighth century. Only the most northern provinces had not been subdued.Legend has it that the Spanish troops were being forced back by the soldiers of Abd ar Rahman II when a knight on a white horse appeared miraculously to encourage them and lead them on to victory. The knight was said to be Santiago who from then on was given the appellation of ‘Matamoros’ or ‘Moorslayer’. Interestingly, historians in recent times have dismissed the idea of the Battle of Clavijo. Reference to it is only found in documents dating from much later, in the twelfth century.
Whatever the truth, Santiago became the patron saint of Spain and many people have travelled the ‘Camino de Santiago’, a pilgrimage road that leads from France though northern Spain to the great cathedral of Santiago de Compostela where the saint’s body lies in a magnificent tomb. The people who travel the road number in the hundreds every year and are not necessarily religious.
Santiago is a big feature of many festivals in Galicia especially at Easter but he has his own special day on July 25. This is by far the biggest and most important of the feast days. Firstly, the day is a public holiday in Galicia and Pais Vasco (Basque Country) so that everyone can enjoy the fun. Special church services are held in the magnificent cathedral with a very large incense burner (Botafumeiro) swinging across the altar pouring out scented smoke that fill the building.
There are also art exhibitions, plays and street events such as folk dancing. Music is very much part of Galician tradition with bagpipes an important instrument. A huge concert is held on the night of the fiesta featuring big names in the pop world, with the obligatory fireworks display as the finale.
Santiago even has his own cake,the origins of which are believed to date back to medieval times, made with almonds and featuring a cross of the Order of Santiago on the top. Known as ‘tarta de Santiago‘, the cake is eaten all year round but is particularly popular on his feast day.