St. James the Apostle, Feast of

St. James the Apostle, Feast of

Type of Holiday: Religious (Roman Catholic)
Date of Observation: July 25
Where Celebrated: Mexico, Philippines, Puerto Rico, Spain, United States, and by Spanish-speaking countries and communities around the world
Symbols and Customs: Bomba, Caballeros, Pilgrimage, Vejigantes


St. James the Apostle, or Santiago as he is known in Spain, was St. John the Evangelist's brother and the first of the twelve apostles to be martyred for his faith. He went to Spain as a missionary before returning to Palestine, where King Herod Agrippa beheaded him around 44 C . E . His remains were brought back to Spain by boat and buried in a field not far from the coast of Galicia in northwestern Spain. The exact location of his grave was eventually forgotten, and it lay neglected for almost 800 years, until the site was miraculously illuminated by starlight in the early ninth century. The discovery of the tomb provided a much-needed boost to the morale of the Spanish troops, who were fighting the Moors at the time, and a vision of the saint on a white horse galloping across the sky is believed to have given them the strength and spirit they needed to drive the Moors out of Spain. A church known as Santiago de Compostela (St. James of the Field of the Star) was built on the site, and it soon became a popular destination for pilgrims (see PIL GRIMAGE ) from all over Europe.

The basis of saint day remembrances-for St. James as well as other saints-is found in ancient Roman tradition. On the anniversary of a death, families would share a ritual meal at the grave site of an ancestor. This practice was adopted by Christians who began observing a ritual meal on the death anniversary of ancestors in the faith, especially martyrs. As a result, most Christian saint days are associated with the death of the saint. There are three important exceptions. John the Baptist, the Virgin Mary, and Jesus are honored on their nativities (birthdays). Many who suffered martyrdom are remembered on saint days in the calendars of several Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant sects.

Because he is the patron saint of Spain, St. James's feast day is celebrated throughout the country but particularly in Santiago de Compostela, where there are processions, bull fights, and fireworks. Mexicans observe July 25 with the Dance of the Tastoanes, which reenacts the struggle between the Mexican natives and the Spanish invaders. The Fiesta of St. James is the year's most important celebration, however, in Loíza, Puerto Rico, a town largely populated by the descendants of the African slaves who once worked on the plantations there. In fact, St. James has taken on many of the characteristics of Shangó, the African (Yoruba) god of war and thunder.

The festival in Loíza centers around three images of the saint-one for the women, one for the men, and one for the children-which are kept throughout the year in the homes of mantenedoras or maintainers and taken out in procession during the yearly festival. The townspeople dress up as CABALLEROS or traditional Spanish gentlemen, as VEJIGANTES or Moors, and as viejos or old men who wear ragged clothing and whose job it is to provide music for the festival and solicit gifts for St. James. The dances and pantomimes performed by these masked figures are of primarily African origin, although they incorporate certain elements of Spanish history and Christian legend.

The celebration of St. James the Apostle's Day in the United States is most notable among the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico, where the influence of the early Spanish missionaries can still be seen. The inhabitants of the Taos, Santa Ana, Laguna, and Cochiti pueblos hold traditional Native American dances on this day, and at Acoma July 25 is celebrated with a rooster pull.



The music known as bomba, which is played at the St. James Festival in Loíza, Puerto Rico, is characterized by chanting and drumming. It represents a combination of Spanish and African elements. Foremost among the instruments are the bombas themselves-tall wooden drums with goatskin parchment heads-along with bongo drums, tambourines, maracas, guitars, and palillos, which are wooden sticks.


Of the several different types of costumed characters who participate in the celebration of St. James Day in Loíza, the caballeros represent all that is good and Christian. They are dressed in the traditional costume of the old-fashioned Spanish gentleman, with brightly colored silk or satin jackets and trousers and masks on which the features of such a gentleman, including a mustache, have been painted. Their hats are usually decorated with ribbons, bells, and tiny mirrors, and they typically appear at the festival on horseback.


Christian pilgrims from all over the world have traveled to Santiago de Compostela since the eleventh century to kneel before the saint's tomb in the crypt of the Romanesque cathedral that was built between 1078 and 1211 C . E ., replacing the original ninth century church. So many pilgrims began arriving there after the cathedral was completed that King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain built a hotel across from it, called the Hostal de los Reyes Católicos, in the early sixteenth century. As a pilgrimage site, Santiago de Compostela rivals Jerusalem and Rome.

Most pilgrims follow the Camino de Santiago or St. James Way, which begins in the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains of southern France and ends at Santiago de Compostela, a distance of 800 kilometers (500 miles). Most pilgrims follow the route on foot, which takes about a month, staying in rustic inns and monasteries along the way.


In contrast to the CABALLEROS , who represent good, the vejigantes who participante in the St. James Fiesta in Loíza, Puerto Rico, symbolize evil and are identified with the Moors, against whom St. James and the cabelleros do battle. They wear batlike costumes and grotesque three-horned masks made of dried coconut husks, painted with the traditional Yoruba (African) colors of red and black. They roam the streets of the city, making howling noises and striking passersby with a paper bag-formerly an inflated bladder known as a vejiga-tied to the end of a stick. It is said that back in the days when pirates would frequently come ashore, plantation owners would have their slaves dress up as vejigantes to scare the invaders away.


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Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009