James the Great (son of Zebedee & brother of the Apostle John) was one of the Twelve Apostles. James & John were the first disciples to follow Jesus, and they were also present at the Transfiguration.
HISTORY & LEGEND
James is the patron saint of Spain. According to legend (from the 12th century Historia Compostelana), James preached the gospel in both the Holy Land and in Spain. Herod Agrippa I executed James in 44 AD.
After his martyrdom, stories say that James’ disciples brought his remains back to Galicia (on the Northwest coast of Spain). A storm hit their ship, and James’ body was lost; when it was recovered, it was covered in scallop shells.
Another legend says that a horse, spooked by the arrival of the ship bearing James’ body, plunged into the sea. Miraculously, the horse & rider were saved, emerging from the water covered in shells.
According to tradition, James’ remains were finally buried at the site of what became the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela (Santiago is Spanish for “St. James”). When this became a popular pilgrimage site, pilgrims would bring back with them a scallop shell as proof of their journey.
Shells eventually became the symbol of pilgrimage, referring to both the pilgrimages taken to particular holy sites, as well as the spiritual journey of humanity: “All these died in faith. They did not receive what had been promised but saw it and greeted it from afar and acknowledged themselves to be strangers and aliens on earth” (Hebrews 11:13 NABRE)
In England, the oyster harvest would begin around St. James’ Day. Kids gathered discarded shells – symbolic of St. James – and built grottos with the shells, tucking flowers, glass, ribbons, moss, etc. among them. They would place a lit candle inside, asking for donations to tend the light.
Blackburn, Bonnie and Leofranc Holford-Strevens. Oxford Companion to the Year. Oxford University Press, 1999.
Roud, Steve. The English Year. Penguin, 2008.
Wikipedia: Historia Compostelana. https://www.christianiconography.info/goldenLegend/assumption.htm