St. Francis of Assisi, Feast of

St. Francis of Assisi, Feast of

Type of Holiday: Religious (Christian)
Date of Observation: October 4
Where Celebrated: Italy, United States
Symbols and Customs: Blessing of the Animals
Related Holidays: Christmas ORIGINS

St. Francis was the son of a wealthy family who lived in the Italian town of Assisi. When he was about twenty, he was held prisoner for a year as the result of a war between two neighboring towns. This experience, combined with a serious illness he suffered at about the same time, prompted him to reexamine his life. He ended up forsaking any claim to his family's fortune and going off to live in a hut, where he spent his time ministering to the poor and the sick. A group of his boyhood friends left their homes and joined him. These were the first Franciscans, as the members of the religious order started by St. Francis eventually came to be known. In the beginning, however, they were called the Penitents of Assisi.

The Penitents were known for their high spirits and appreciation of the simple things in life. Like St. Francis, their leader, they were troubadours who went around singing about God's goodness. Their numbers increased rapidly, and they made their headquarters at the Portiuncula, a small chapel of the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli. Even though the Franciscans were ragged and underfed, they all shared the joy and enthusiasm that had originally drawn them to St. Francis. They spent much of their time renovating churches that had fallen into disrepair and taking care of lepers and other outcasts.

The basis of saint day remembrances-of St. Francis and 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.

By the thirteenth century, the Roman Catholic Church had instituted canonization, the process of making a person a saint. Before that, Christians venerated people they considered saints. In 1228 Pope Gregory IX formally canonized Francis of Assisi.

Although St. Francis died when he was only in his forties, he is believed to have been responsible for instituting two widespread CHRISTMAS traditions. He gave instructions for building the first crèche, in the town of Greccio, so that he could see with his own eyes the scene that must have surrounded the infant Jesus as he lay in the manger. St. Francis is also credited with the custom of caroling, since it was the Franciscans who composed and sang the first Italian Christmas carols.

The Feast of St. Francis is one of the most important festivals of the year in Assisi, Italy. For two days, the entire town is illuminated by oil lamps burning consecrated oil brought from a different Italian town each year. A parchment in St. Francis's handwriting, believed to be the saint's deathbed blessing to his follower, Brother Leo, is taken to the top of the Santa Maria degli Angeli basilica, and the people are blessed by a representative of the Pope.


Blessing of the Animals

St. Francis loved animals because they were God's creatures. He instituted the custom of showing special kindness to animals at Christmastime, urging farmers to provide their oxen and asses with extra corn and hay in commemoration of the night when the infant Jesus lay between an ox and an ass in the manger. He also encouraged people to scatter grain and corn on the streets so that the birds would have enough to eat. He had a great fondness for songbirds, especially larks.

In the United States, it is not uncommon for children to bring their pets to the church to be blessed on St. Francis's feast day. The annual blessing of the animals held at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City on this day has turned into quite a spectacle. Among the animals that have come there to be blessed are a camel, an 8,000-pound elephant, a macaw with a thirty-word vocabulary, and a turtle that was rescued from a Chinese restaurant, where it was about to be made into soup.


Brewster, H. Pomeroy. Saints and Festivals of the Christian Church. 1904. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Christianson, Stephen G., and Jane M. Hatch. The American Book of Days. 4th ed. New York: H.W. Wilson, 2000. Cohen, Hennig, and Tristram Potter Coffin. The Folklore of American Holidays. 3rd ed. Detroit: Gale Research, 1999. Dobler, Lavinia G. Customs and Holidays Around the World. New York: Fleet Pub. Corp., 1962. 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.


New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia