St. Thomas’s Day
The Feast of St. Thomas the Apostle, established in the twelfth century, originally fell on December 21, the day of the WINTER SOLSTICE. Folk customs attached to the saint’s day, therefore, reflected both the occurrence of the solstice and the closeness of Christmas. Although the Roman Catholic Church has since moved St. Thomas’s Day to July 3, some Anglicans preserve the December date. The Greek Orthodox Church celebrates the saint’s feast on October 6.
LIFE AND LEGENDS OF ST. THOMAS THE APOSTLE
JESUS selected Thomas as one of his twelve disciples. Although he appears in all four Gospels, he is perhaps best remembered as the apostle who questioned the truth of Jesus’ resurrection because he had not seen the risen Jesus with his own eyes (John 20:25). In so doing he earned the nickname “Doubting Thomas.” In the Greek used by the writers of the New Testament, his name means “twin.”
According to legend, St. Thomas spread the gospel to the East, venturing as far as INDIA in his quest. There he established a Christian community in the southwestern region known then as Malabar, currently part of the state of Kerala. One story claims that Thomas found and baptized the Three Kings (see also MAGI). These three then became India’s first bishops. Another tale reports that an Indian king commissioned Thomas to build an opulent palace. Instead, the saint took the money entrusted to him for the project and distributed it to the poor. He died a martyr’s death and was buried in Mylapore, near the city of Madras.
Artists often depicted the saint kneeling by the side of the risen Christ, verifying Jesus’identity by touching his wounds. Artists have also portrayed him holding a carpenter’s rule. In medieval times he was known as the patron saint of architects, masons, and stonecutters. St. Thomas also protects the aged.
ENGLISH BEGGING CUSTOMS
St. Thomas’s Day falls within the CHRISTMAS SEASON in many European countries. Customs associated with the day reflect its proximity to the holiday. In past times in rural ENGLAND children, the poor, and the elderly might go “Thomasing” on that day. The most typical participants in this old customary practice, however, were poor, elderly women. Also known as “mumping,” “doleing,” “corning,” or “good-ing,” the custom permitted these folk to go door to door asking for small handouts in order to enjoy good things to eat at Christmas time. The elderly collected money, which helped them afford special Christmas foods. The words to an old English Christmas song describe this custom:
Christmas is coming and the geese are getting fat, Please spare a penny for the old man’s hat, If you haven’t got a penny, a ha’penny will do, If you haven’t got a ha’penny, God bless you [Muir, 1977,35].
In lieu of money, prosperous households often distributed grain to their less-fortunate neighbors, who turned it into various CHRISTMAS CAKES, breads, or sweets. Often it became frumenty, a dessert made of boiled wheat, milk, sugar, and cinnamon. In Worcestershire children begged for apples. The well-to-do not only presented these small GIFTS, but might also offer Christmas ale or other forms of seasonal cheer. In return for their charity, rich householders received a sprig of HOLLY or MISTLETOE, which folk beliefs suggested would bring them good luck. In some regions of the country, the well-off contributed money to a local church fund known as “St. Thomas’s Dole.” The clergy and churchwardens distributed the money to the needy on the Sunday before St. Thomas’s Day. Evidence suggests that the custom of begging door to door on St. Thomas’s Day arose in the eighteenth century, peaked in the early nineteenth century, and died out in the early twentieth century.
In England students of past eras raced to school early on St. Thomas’s Day. If they succeeded in arriving before the teacher, they were allowed to lock him out and so escape their lessons (see also BARRING OUT THE SCHOOLMASTER). In Belgium children practiced this custom with both parents and teachers, exacting the promise of treats in return for unlocking the doors. In some areas students tied their teachers to a chair until their demands were met, which often required teachers to take them to a local tavern. In DENMARK, some schools put students in charge on St. Thomas’s Day. The students conferred fancy titles on themselves and issued documents proclaiming their scholastic achievements.
GERMANY, HOLLAND, AUSTRIA, AND CZECHOSLOVAKIA
In central Europe many past St. Thomas Day practices focused on the short day and long night of the winter solstice. In GERMANY and Holland one custom encouraged especially early rising after this, the longest night of the year. The last to rise or arrive at work or school was called “lazybones” or Domesesel (Thomas ass). In Germany St. Thomas’s Eve was also called “Spinning Night,” in reference to the practice of some spinners who stayed at their task all night in order to earn extra money for Christmas. Dancing and singing helped to ease the toil and pass the long night hours. Another past custom encouraged charity in light of the coming Christmas holiday. On St. Thom-as’s Day German employers were expected to make small gifts to their employees in order that they might buy Christmas provisions.
Old Austrian traditions recommended driving out demons on St. Thomas’s Day. According to folk belief evil spirits fled from loud noises, so people rang BELLS, cracked whips, and staged raucous parades in frightening masks. These noisemaking practices continued on during the following nights, a practice that earned them the nickname the “rough nights.” Christian versions of this St. Thomas’s Day exorcism also existed. In some households the head of the family would walk through the house, barn, and yard spreading incense and sprinkling holy water, while the rest of the family and servants gathered together in prayer. In this way the family protected itself from evil spirits and blessed the homestead for the coming Christmas festival. Similar “smoke blessings” were also practiced during the Christmas season in Czechoslovakia and Germany.
This turning point in the solar year also attracted many charms and divination practices. For example, old folk beliefs informed German girls that if they slept upside down on St. Thomas’s Day, with their feet on the pillow and their head near the foot of the bed, they would dream of their future husbands. English girls achieved the same effect by wrapping a peeled onion in a handkerchief and sleeping with it under their pillow. Another German and Austrian custom connected St. Thomas’s Day with the baking of Kletzenbrot or Hutzelbrot, a fruit bread. In Germany, if the cook interrupted the kneading process to dash out and hug all the trees in the orchard, the trees were bound to bear much fruit in the coming year.
St. Thomas’s Day ushered in the Christmas season in old NORWAY. In past times Norwegian custom insisted that all Christmas preparations be completed by St. Thomas’s Day, including the chopping of enough firewood to last throughout the two-week Christmas festival. All Christmas baking, slaughtering, and brewing should also have been finished by that day. For this reason Thomas the Apostle long ago acquired the humorous nickname, “St. Thomas the Brewer.” In past times Norwegians visited each other on St. Thomas’s Day in order to sample one another’s Christmas ale.
In old Norway the PEACE OF CHRISTMAS began on St. Thomas’s Day. Towns designated special watchmen to ensure that peace and friendliness reigned during the holiday season. Penalties for violent crimes doubled at this time of the year. So strong was the desire for harmony during the Christmas season that one folk tradition even discouraged mentioning the names of harmful animals, such as wolves, during this period.