Festival of Santiago

This item appears on page 29 of the August 2010 issue.

Pilgrimages fascinate me — the ritual, the pageantry, the dedication of the pilgrims, their willingness to undergo hardship and their sense of fulfillment upon the achievement of their quest. My own “pilgrimages” have been secular.

In August ’08 I was simply a traveler drawn to Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain for the annual late-July festival of Santiago, the biblical Saint James.

Legend says that the Romans cut off his head and his friends ferried his remains to a grave in what is now Spain. Over time, the site of the grave was lost, until a field of stars (campus stellae) guided a monk to find it, hence the city’s name: Santiago de Compostela.

Walking into Santiago’s cathedral, the epicenter of the festival, I was greeted by a giant papier-mâche figure of a Moor that was being lowered on ropes from a storage attic. It was followed by other figures from the history of Spanish conflicts with the Moors, in which Santiago is said to have intervened on the side of the locals.

Men stepped inside the far-more-than-life-sized figures, transporting them to a corner of the church. During the festival, they would be paraded down Santiago’s streets.

In the mornings, the local population — mostly women and girls dressed in Renaissance-style frocks, embroidered vests and headgear — gathered in the cathedral square. In the evenings, a band of men in red and black capes serenaded while people wandered about and stopped to watch the men who swarmed over the cathedral’s façade to build a second façade of fireworks.

I indulged in salty, hot green peppers in cafés and shopped in the many small stores featuring goods made of azabache, a plant that petrifies into a stunning ebony.

At last, it was Saturday night and everyone smashed into the square, watching the cathedral explode in a fountain of color, pinwheels, torches and delicate sprays of light, all punctuated by a fusillade of booms. For 30 minutes the show is as constantly spectacular as the last-second finale of every Fourth of July display.

But this was not the highlight. What we all were really waiting for was Sunday Mass, when one of the world’s largest censers would swing, manipulated by eight men guiding a complex series of ropes.

I was in the queue at the cathedral early and still barely managed a spot in the standing-room-only section. The priest intoned the Mass, the faithful took Communion and then the show began as the 54-kilo censer started its long arc, nearly hitting the ceiling’s stone vaults. Too quickly, it slowed down; a priest grabbed it, stumbling under the final weight, and the festival was over.

I watched the pilgrims bid each other good-bye and realized how much they had bonded in the miles they’d covered.


Seattle, WA