St. Thomas the Apostle's Day

St. Thomas the Apostle's Day

Type of Holiday: Religious (Christian)
Date of Observation: December 21 by Anglicans and Malabar Christians; July 3 by Roman Catholics; October 6 in the East
Where Celebrated: England, Guatemala, India, Pakistan, United States, and by Christians all over the world
Symbols and Customs: Barring the Door, Divination Rites, Doleing, Flying Pole Dance
Related Holidays: Winter Solstice


St. Thomas the Apostle is often referred to as "Doubting Thomas" because he refused to believe the other Apostles when they told him that Jesus had appeared to them on the evening of the first EASTER and showed them the wounds he had received when he was crucified. Thomas, who wasn't with them at the time, insisted that he had to touch Jesus' wounds with his own hands before he could believe. Eight days later he had an opportunity to do just that, but he is still remembered for his skeptical nature.

When the Apostles left Jerusalem and went out into the world to spread the Gospel, Thomas went to India. He worked as a carpenter there, preaching the word of God until he was captured and killed by King Mazdai, whose wife and son he had already converted. Along India's Malabar coast, there is still a community of Christians who call themselves the "Christians of St. Thomas" and claim that their ancestors were converted by St. Thomas the Apostle. Thomas is the patron saint of India and Pakistan, and his feast day is a major celebration among the Malabar Christians.

The basis of saint day remembrances-for St. Thomas and for 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.

St. Thomas's Day falls on December 21, the WINTER SOLSTICE, which explains why he appears in folklore as a saint of light and darkness. Because of his connection with the mysterious turning of the year, St. Thomas is often invoked for protection against evil and clues about what the future will hold (see DIVINATION RITES ). Roman Catholics used to celebrate his feast in December but later shifted it to July 3, the day on which his relics were transferred. Episcopalian, Lutheran, and some other Protestant churches continue to observe December 21 as St. Thomas's Day, while Orthodox Christians observe it on October 6.


Barring the Door

In western Europe, it was customary for schoolchildren to bar their teacher from entering the school on St. Thomas's Day. They would rush to school as early as possible in the morning so they would be there before their teacher arrived. Then they would barricade the door, refusing to let him enter until he promised them a day off. In Belgium, students demanded a feast of cakes and ale, and children would often bar the door against their parents as well. In Denmark, St. Thomas's Day was a school festival, when children brought gifts of money or candles to their teacher and he, in return, gave them a feast.

The custom of barring schoolmasters probably had less to do with St. Thomas than with the fact that December 21 usually coincided with the end of the school term.

Divination Rites

St. Thomas was often consulted for predictions about the future because of his connection with the ominous time of year when the world turned from darkness to light. One common practice on St. Thomas's Eve was to throw a pair of shoes backwards over the shoulder and then leave the room without looking to see how they fell. If, in the morning, they were found pointing towards the door, it was a sign that the person to whom they belonged would leave home during the coming year, perhaps to be married. If they pointed inward, the person knew that he or she would not be changing homes for the next 12 months.

Young English girls used to peel an onion, wrap it up in a handkerchief, and sleep with it under their pillows on the eve of St. Thomas's Day, a practice that would make them dream of their future husbands. The actual feast day was sometimes thought to be unlucky for weddings; because it was the shortest day of the year, it was regarded as an omen of a short married life. But in some areas it was deliberately chosen for weddings because the brief hours of daylight on the solstice left the young couple with less time to have second thoughts about getting married.


In England at one time, it was customary on St. Thomas's Day for the poorer inhabitants of the parish to call on their wealthier neighbors and receive a gift or "dole" of food or money. In return, they would give their benefactor a sprig of holly or mistletoe. This custom gave rise to the name "Doleing Day," although in some parts of England it was known as Gooding Day or Mumping Day, since those who had to beg were said to be "on the mump."

During the nineteenth century in England, workmen often received groceries and other goods in lieu of wages. They would be given vouchers that could only be exchanged for food at their employer's "tommy" shop. The loaves of bread that were traditionally distributed as charity on St. Thomas's Day became known as "tommy," and the word was later used to describe any kind of food or provisions distributed to workers or soldiers.

Flying Pole Dance

On St. Thomas's Day in Guatemala, the Mayan Indians honor the sun god they worshipped long before they became Christians with a dangerous ritual known as the palo voladore or 'flying pole dance.' Three men climb to the top of a 50-foot pole. As one beats a drum and plays a flute, the other two wind a long rope attached to the pole around one foot and jump. If they land on their feet, it is believed that the sun god will be pleased and that the days will start getting longer-a safe bet in view of the fact that St. Thomas's day coincides with the WINTER SOLSTICE (see also CORPUS CHRISTI, FEAST OF).


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