St. Elmo's Day

St. Elmo's Day

Type of Holiday: Religious (Christian)
Date of Observation: June 2
Where Celebrated: Italy and by Christians, particularly sailors, around the world
Symbols and Customs: St. Elmo's Fire

ORIGINS

St. Elmo has been confused with St. Erasmus, an earlier patron saint of sailors. Erasmus was a third-century Italian bishop who was martyred around 304 during the persecution of Christians by the Roman emperor Diocletian. He was at the height of his popularity in the thirteenth century when Elmo, who had spent much of his life working among the seafaring people of the Spanish coast, came along. Over the centuries, the two saints became identified with one another in the minds of the sailors who asked for their protection, and eventually no distinction was made between them.

Some scholars think that Elmo is merely a variation of the name Erasmus, and that the two saints are actually the same person. According to legend, Erasmus was martyred by being disemboweled, and for this reason his name is often invoked by people who suffer from intestinal problems.

The basis of saint day remembrances-for St. Elmo as well as other saints-is found in ancient Roman tradition. On the anniversary of a death, families would share a ritual meal at the grave site of an ancestor. This practice was adopted by Christians who began observing a ritual meal on the death anniversary of ancestors in the faith, especially martyrs. As a result, most Christian saint days are associated with the death of the saint. There are three important exceptions. John the Baptist, the Virgin Mary, and Jesus are honored on their nativities (birthdays). Many who suffered martyrdom are remembered on saint days in the calendars of several Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant sects.

SYMBOLS AND CUSTOMS

St. Elmo's Fire

Because St. Elmo is the patron saint of sailors, it seemes appropriate that a natural phenomenon which can only be observed at sea should be named after him. "St. Elmo's Fire" is a pale, brush-like spray of electricity occasionally seen at the top of a ship's mast on a stormy night. This association apparently arose because the legend of St. Erasmus (also called Elmo) describes him preaching during a thunderstorm, undeterred by a bolt of lightning that strikes nearby. Sailors, who had good reason to be afraid of sudden storms, thought that seeing St. Elmo's Fire was a sign of the saint's protection.

The Greeks were familiar with this phenomenon long before the time of any Christian saint. If it appeared as a single brush of light, they called it "Helena," after the exceptionally beautiful daughter of Leda and Jupiter who married Menelaus and was seduced by Paris and carried off to Troy, thus triggering the Trojan War. If it appeared as a double stroke of light, they called it "Castor and Pollux," after Helena's twin brothers.

The scientific name for this electrical phenomenon is "corona discharge." But since the Middle Ages, it has been referred to as St. Elmo's Fire. Sailors at sea used to think these lights in the sky were the souls of the departed, rising to glory through the intercession of St. Elmo.

FURTHER READING

Farmer, David Hugh. The Oxford Dictionary of Saints. 5th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Harper, Howard V. Days and Customs of All Faiths. 1957. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Jobes, Gertrude. Dictionary of Mythology, Folklore, and Symbols. New York: Scarecrow Press, 1962. Trawicky, Bernard, and Ruth W. Gregory. Anniversaries and Holidays. 5th ed. Chicago: American Library Assocation, 2000.

St. Elmo's Day

June 2
The day that is known as St. Elmo's Day is actually St. Erasmus's Day, in honor of a third-century Italian bishop who is thought to have suffered martyrdom around the year 304. Erasmus was a patron saint of sailors and was especially popular in the 13th century. He is often referred to as Elmo, a variation of Erasmus.
Sometimes at sea on stormy nights, sailors will see a pale, brushlike spray of electricity at the top of the mast. In the Middle Ages, they believed that these fires were the souls of the departed, rising to glory through the intercession of St. Elmo. Such an electrical display is still referred to as "St. Elmo's Fire."
SOURCES:
DaysCustFaith-1957, p. 140
OxYear-1999, p. 235