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How to Celebrate the Feast of St. James the Elder

Updated: 2 days ago

A cake with a crown

The Feast of St. James the Elder on July 25th is a special occasion to honor the life and legacy of this beloved apostle. Two apostles and three total New Testament saints are named James. Therefore, the Church uses the title “Saint James the Elder” or “Saint James the Great” to distinguish James, the son of Zebedee and brother of John, from the others. James and John were simple fishermen from Galilee who became Christ’s faithful disciples. Their journey alongside Jesus was marked by moments of great devotion and intimacy. On this feast day, we have the opportunity to celebrate St. James in our homes, embracing the rich traditions and significance associated with his life.

Who Was St. James the Elder?

At the beginning of his ministry, after being tempted in the wilderness, Jesus preaches a message of repentance in Galilee. Walking along the Sea of Galilee shore, he calls the brothers Peter and Andrew to follow him. They leave their nets and followed. Jesus then encounters James and John, preparing their nets with their father Zebedee. He calls them too, and they begin following him (Mark 1:12-18).

While journeying from town to town, James, along with his brother and Peter, have special moments of intimacy with Jesus. Only these three are present when Jesus raises Jairus’ daughter from the dead in Mark 5:37. In Matthew 17:1, Jesus transfigures before them on a high mountain. In Gethsemane, Jesus asked James, John, and Peter to “stay here and keep watch with me.”

James and John attracted attention at times, as seen in the Gospel of Luke when they wanted to call down fire on unwelcoming Samaritans, but Jesus rebuked them. This explains why he nicknames them the “sons of thunder” (Mark 3:17).

In Matthew 20, Salome, their mother, asks for her sons to have special places of honor in Jesus’ kingdom. Jesus asked if they could drink from his cup, and they affirmed. Jesus prophesies they will drink from his cup, but the granting of positions isn’t his decision.

The Ministry of St. James

After Jesus’ death and resurrection, James, along with the other disciples, was taught by Jesus, watched him ascend to the Father, then waited in the upper room for the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Like all the other apostles, James spent the rest of his life sharing the Gospel and leading the early church. James felt called to Spain, where he preached for seven years. According to early Christian writings, James returned to Jerusalem, where King Herod martyred him in 42 A.D. (Acts 12:1-2).

The Legacy of St. James

James, being martyred, could not be buried in Jerusalem, so his followers carried his remains back to Spain. Incursions and wars caused the location of his remains to be lost. In the 9th century, legend says a hermit named Pelayo saw special stars in the sky, which he considered a sign from God. Pelayo brought his bishop to the site, and they discovered St. James’ lost remains along with his two disciples. They named the area Compostela, meaning “field of stars.” Later, the king built a cathedral to mark the sacred location, known as the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, sparking pilgrimages from the faithful.

The famous road to the cathedral is The Camino or “the Way,” an ancient pilgrim route from France and Spain to Compostela. The Camino de Santiago has since become one of the world’s most renowned pilgrimage routes, attracting thousands of pilgrims from various backgrounds. Upon completing “the Camino,” pilgrims attach scallop shells or images to their hats or clothes as “pilgrim badges.”

The Feast of St. James Around the World

In Spain, they hold a two-week festival in honor of St. James that concludes with his feast day. The festivities include dramatic performances, traditional costumes, Galician bagpipe music, dancing, and special foods. People enjoy the scallop-filled empanada, symbolizing the scallop shell associated with Saint James.

On the eve of the Feast of St. James, a breathtaking fireworks display begins at midnight. Gathering at the Praza do Obradoiro, both locals and visitors revel in the traditional fireworks projected on the facade of Santiago Cathedral. It illuminates the night sky, reminding us of the light of Christ that St. James shared with the world.

On the feast day of St. James, the cathedral hosts a High Mass attended by the Spanish Royal family. It is a moment of reverence and devotion as the faithful gather to honor the saint. A special six-foot-tall censer called the “botafumeiro” is swung from the cathedral’s ceiling, filling the air with fragrant incense and creating a sense of spiritual awe.

How to Celebrate the Feast of St. James the Elder

Since scallop shells symbolize the Feast of St. James, make madeleines, a crispy cookie made in a scallop-shaped mold, or buy them from the store.

Cook a Spanish dish like paella or empanadas to evoke the flavors and traditions of the region. Act like a pilgrim by dressing like pilgrims and embarking on a walking adventure or camping out. Make colorful scallop shapes out of paper and pin them on your clothes after you have completed your “pilgrimage.”

It is also customary to eat oysters today. A common saying is, “Who eats oysters on Saint James’ Day will never want!” In France, it is not the oyster that is eaten, but the scallop known as “coquilles Saint-Jacques” or “shells of Saint James.”

In Spain, they eat the Tarta de Santiago or Almond Cake of St. James. This is a classic dessert from the region and is a moist almond cake made with ground almonds, sugar, eggs, and lemon zest. It is often topped with powdered sugar and the image of the Cross of Saint James.

Spanish Almond Cake (Tarta de Santiago) Recipe

  • 2 cups ground almonds. Use raw, peeled almonds for best results. You can optionally toast them in the oven for a deeper almond flavor.

  • 1 ¼ cups sugar

  • 5 eggs

  • lemon zest from half a lemon

  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

  • 1 tablespoon liquor (You can use vodka, Cointreau, Amaretto, or Grappa. Vanilla or almond extract can be substituted if you don’t want to include alcohol!)

  • Powdered sugar to dust


Preheat the oven to 350°. Pulse the almonds in a food processor until finely ground. However, be careful not to turn the mixture into almond butter by over-processing. Beat the egg and sugar until the mixture is pale and creamy. Add the lemon zest, liquor, and cinnamon. Fold in the ground almonds using a rubber spatula. Grease a 10-inch springform pan with butter and pour in the almond cake batter. Bake for about 30 minutes, until the cake is golden brown. Test with a toothpick; if it doesn’t come out clean, cover the cake with aluminum foil and bake for five more minutes, then test again. Do this one more time if necessary (for 40 minutes total).

Allow the cake to cool in the pan, and then transfer to a serving dish. Decorate with powdered sugar. If you wish, you can download a printout of the emblematic cross of Saint James.

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