Feast of St. James the Greater
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St. James was the son of Zebedee, a Galilean fisherman, and Salome, a pious woman who tended after Christ. He and his younger brother, St. John (Feast Day: December 27), were called as disciples just after Simon Peter and Andrew were called, and Peter, James and John are often mentioned together in Scripture, having been witness to the raising of Jairus’s daughter, the Transfiguration, and Christ’s Agony in the garden of Gethsemani.
He and his brother must have been quick to anger and zealous as they came to be called “Boanerges” (“Sons of Thunder”) — a nickname given to them by Jesus Himself. After Our Lord’s Ascension, tradition says that St. James’s zeal for evangelizing took him to parts of Spain for a time, as St. Paul had wanted to do (Romans 15:24), whereafter he returned to Judea for his martyrdom.
In A.D. 44, Herod Agrippa I, the grandson of Herod the Great who tried to have Baby Jesus killed, set out to do the will of the Jews by dealing harshly with local Christians. St. James was accused, and Herod then “killed James, the brother of John, with the sword.” (Acts 12:1-2). Church Historian, Eusebius, tells us that St. James’s accuser followed James to martyrdom when he converted after hearing the Saint’s confession to Herod.
Here tradition picks up again by telling us that James’s relics were translated to Spain (of course, legends grew surrounding the event, one strange and lovely one in particular apparently meant to explain why the cockleshell is St. James’s emblem. It is said that when the Saint’s relics were being conveyed by ship from Jerusalem and approached the coast of Portugal, a man happened to be riding his horse on the beach. The horse disobediently plunged into the sea, with its rider, making for the boat. They sank, of course, but then rose again, covered with scallop shells, and hence the cockleshell became the symbol of our hero). The relics were entombed and rather forgotten after years of Roman persecution, Vandal and Visigoth invasions, and Muslim attacks — forgotten, that is, until an early 9th century hermit named Pelayo discovered the tomb — some say after seeing a star marking the place — in an area that became known as Compostela, which means “Field of Stars.” The King built a cathedral to mark the location (Pelayo’s Bishop, Theodomor of Iria, is also buried there, refusing to be buried in his See out of his desire to be near the Saint).
The faithful began to make pilgrimages to the site — so much so that Compostela became the third greatest place of pilgrimage, just after Jerusalem and Rome — and still make the pilgrimage today. After making one of the many routes, known as “the Camino,” pilgrims attach cockleshells or their facsimile to their hats or clothes as “pilgrim badges,” signs that they’d venerated the holy relics. Any year in which St. James’s Day falls on a Sunday is called a Holy Year, and a plenary indulgence may be gained by making the pilgrimage (his Feast falls on a Sunday every 6, 5, 6, and 11 years). To gain the indulgence, one must fulfill the usual conditions of plenary indulgences, must intend the pilgrimage for spiritual purposes and must have made the last 63 miles (100 km) on foot or on horse, or the last 125 miles (200 km) on bicycle. Sadly, many — thousands — make the pilgrimage for non-Catholic reasons nowadays.
At the time of the Muslim (“Moorish”) invasions mentioned above, a particular battle took place that was to seal St. James ever more closely to Spain, where he is known as “San Tiago.” At the Battle of Clavijo in A.D. 841, the Christians had lost and were in retreat when King Ramirez of Leon had a dream in which the Apostle assured him of victory. He relayed his vision to his men, and the next morning he had his trumpeters sound the call to battle. There, on the field, the men saw St. James on a horse adorned with cockleshells, waving a banner. He led the Christians on to a clear victory, and ever since, the Spanish battle-cry has been “Santiago!”
St. James is the Patron of Spain, equestrians, blacksmiths, tanners, veterinarians. He is usually depicted in art with his symbols — the cockleshell, pilgrim hat, sword, Sacred Scripture — or on horeseback, usually trampling a Moor.
As to the day’s customs, because of the love the Spanish have for St. James, they adopted him as their Patron, and his Feast is a national holiday, a time of great celebration, much like the Feast of St. Patrick is for the Irish, that of St. Joseph is for the Italians, and that of St. Andrew is for the Scots. In Compostela, there are great processions and the famous La Fachada fireworks display. And at the city’s cathedral, the city’s faithful — and many pilgrims, too, especially in Jubilee years — gather to worship. From the ceiling of this great cathedral hangs a six-foot tall 14th century censer (the “botafumeiro”) that is swung by pulleys on this day and for a few other great Feasts.
“Back in the day,” the people of England who couldn’t make the pilgrimage to St. James’s shrine would gather up seashells, bits of broken colored glass, pretty stones, and flowers and such and would build little grottoes in honor of St. James on his Feast. Though I doubt many people still do this, it is a lovely custom — and one that could be easily revived!
It is also customary for the English to eat oysters today. It is said that “Who eats oysters on St James’s Day will never want!” In France, it is not the oyster that is eaten, but the scallop — named “coquilles St.Jacques” — “shells of St. James” — in his honor. A few recipes to try:
Coquilles St. Jacques à la Provençale (serves 6)
1/3 cup yellow onions, minced
1 TBSP butter
1 1/2 TBSP minced scallions
1 clove garlic, minced
1 1/2 pounds washed bay scallops (or sea scallops, quartered)
Salt and pepper
3/4 cup sifted flour, in a dish
2 TBSP butter
1 TBSP olive oil
2/3 cup dry white wine
1 small bay leaf
1/8 teaspoon thyme
6 buttered scallop dishes or baking shells
1/4 cup grated good-quality Gruyère or Swiss cheese
2 TBSP butter in 6 pieces
Cook onions in 1 tablespoon butter in a small saucepan for about 5 minutes, or until they are tender and translucent but not brown. Stir in scallions and garlic and sauté slowly 1 minute more. Dry scallops and cut them into slices 1/4 inch thick. Just before cooking, sprinkle the scallops with salt and pepper, roll in flour and shake off excess flour. Sauté scallops quickly in very hot 2 tablespoons butter mixed with olive oil until lightly browned, about 2 minutes. Pour wine into skillet with scallops, add herbs and cooked onion mixture. Cover skillet and simmer 5 minutes. Then uncover and, if necessary, remove scallops and boil down sauce rapidly for a few minutes until slightly thickened. Correct seasoning and discard bay leaf. Spoon scallops and sauce into shells. Sprinkle with cheese and dot with butter. Set aside or refrigerate until ready to broil. Just before serving, run under moderately hot broiler 3 to 4 minutes to heat through and melt cheese.
Oysters on the Half-Shell
Arrange raw, shucked oysters (see below) on the lower halves of their shells on an plate covered with crushed ice (6 oysters to the plate is the traditional way), with lemon wedges in between. To eat, add one of the following to the oyster in the shell:
- a few drops of lemon
- a few drops of Tabasco
- a few drops of Pernod with a tiny bit of caviar
- a little mignonette sauce (see below)
Slurp the oyster out of the shell, or use a small cocktail/oyster fork if you’re dainty. Drink the oyster’s liquor from the shell after eating the oyster itself. Serve with oyster crackers, and champagne or dry white wine.
Mignonette Sauce (enough for 3 dozen oysters)
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
1 shallot, minced
white pepper to taste
salt to taste
Place wine and vinegar in saucepan and reduce to one-half. Turn off the flame and stir in the shallot, white pepper, and salt as needed. Set aside to steep until the shallot is softened.
How to Shuck An Oyster
Only eat live oysters, which you can recognize by their tightly closed shells. If a shell is opened, throw it out. Now, scrub the shells with a brush and rinse. Now put on a pair of heavy gloves! Holding the oyster so that the bottom shell is in your hand, insert the blade of a sturdy, blunt knife in between the shells as close to the hinge as you can get. Run the knife along the edges of the oyster until you get to the other side, then twist the knife to pop the shell open. Keep the shell steady so you don’t lose the liquor! On the underside of the oyster will be a little muscle that connects it to the shell. Cut that, then scoop the osyter out. Keep the liquor in the shell to drink when eating the oyster and/or to add to the mignonette sauce, if you are making some.
…As you shuck, keep an eye out for pearls! Pearls (which also, but much more rarely, form in clams and mussels) are produced when an irritant, such as a grain of sand, gets stuck in between the oyster’s mantle and shell. To protect itself, the oyster secretes the same substance that it used to line the inside of its shell with lovely nacre. The pearl is a symbol of perfection and chastity, and of evangelical doctrine (see St. Ephraem’s hyms on the Faith under the title “The Pearl“). After recounting the Parable of the Wheat and the Cockle, Jesus compared the Kingdom of Heaven to a merchant seeking a “pearl of great price”:
Matthew 13:24-29, 36-50
Another parable he proposed to them, saying: The kingdom of heaven is likened to a man that sowed good seeds in his field. But while men were asleep, his enemy came and oversowed cockle among the wheat and went his way. And when the blade was sprung up, and had brought forth fruit, then appeared also the cockle. And the servants of the goodman of the house coming said to him: Sir, didst thou not sow good seed in thy field? whence then hath it cockle? And he said to them: An enemy hath done this. And the servants said to him: Wilt thou that we go and gather it up? And he said: No, lest perhaps gathering up the cockle, you root up the wheat also together with it. Suffer both to grow until the harvest, and in the time of the harvest I will say to the reapers: Gather up first the cockle, and bind it into bundles to burn, but the wheat gather ye into my barn…
…Then having sent away the multitudes, he came into the house, and his disciples came to him, saying: Expound to us the parable of the cockle of the field. Who made answer and said to them: He that soweth the good seed, is the Son of man. And the field, is the world. And the good seed are the children of the kingdom. And the cockle, are the children of the wicked one. And the enemy that sowed them, is the devil. But the harvest is the end of the world. And the reapers are the angels. Even as cockle therefore is gathered up, and burnt with fire: so shall it be at the end of the world. The Son of man shall send his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all scandals, and them that work iniquity. And shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then shall the just shine as the sun, in the kingdom of their Father. He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.
The kingdom of heaven is like unto a treasure hidden in a field. Which a man having found, hid it, and for joy thereof goeth, and selleth all that he hath, and buyeth that field. Again the kingdom of heaven is like to a merchant seeking good pearls. Who when he had found one pearl of great price, went his way, and sold all that he had, and bought it. Again the kingdom of heaven is like to a net cast into the sea, and gathering together of all kind of fishes. Which, when it was filled, they drew out, and sitting by the shore, they chose out the good into vessels, but the bad they cast forth. So shall it be at the end of the world. The angels shall go out, and shall separate the wicked from among the just. And shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.