December 21: St. Thomas’ Day

By Clement A. Miles

Many and various are the customs and beliefs associated with the feast of St. Thomas. [*] In Denmark it was formerly a great children’s day, unique in the year, and rather resembling the mediaeval Boy Bishop festival. It was the breaking-up day for schools; the children used to bring their master an offering of candles and money, and in return he gave them a feast. In some places it had an even more delightful side: for this one day in the year the children were allowed the mastery in the school. [1] Testimonials to their scholarship and industry were made out, and elaborate titles were added to their names, as exalted sometimes as “Pope,” “Emperor,” or “Empress.” Poor children used to go about showing these documents and collecting money. Games and larks of all sorts went on in the schools without a word of reproof, and the children were wont to burn their master’s rod.

In the neighbourhood of Antwerp children go early to school on St. Thomas’s Day, and lock the master out, until he promises to treat them with ale or other drink. After this they buy a cock and hen, which are allowed to escape and have to be caught by the boys or the girls respectively. The girl who catches the hen is called “queen,” the boy who gets the cock, “king.” Elsewhere in Belgium children lock out their parents, and servants their masters, while schoolboys bind their teacher to his chair and carry him over to the inn. There he has to buy back his liberty by treating his scholars with punch and cakes. Instead of the chase for the fowls, it was up to 1850 the custom in the Ardennes for the teacher to give the children hens and let them chop the heads off. Some pagan sacrifice no doubt lies at the root of this practice, which has many parallels in the folklore of western and southern Europe.

As for schoolboys’ larks with their teachers, the custom of “barring out the master” existed in England, and was practised before Christmas as well as at other times of the year, notably Shrove Tuesday. At Bromfield in Cumberland on Shrove Tuesday there was a regular siege, the school doors were strongly barricaded within, and the boy-defenders were armed with pop-guns. If the master won, heavy tasks were imposed, but if, as more often happened, he was defeated in his efforts to regain his authority, he had to make terms with the boys as to the hours of work and play.

St. Thomas’s Eve is in certain regions one of the uncanniest nights in the year. In some Bohemian villages the saint is believed to drive about at midnight in a chariot of fire. In the churchyard there await him all the dead men whose name is Thomas; they help him to alight and accompany him to the churchyard cross, which glows red with supernatural radiance. There St. Thomas kneels and prays, and then rises to bless his namesakes. This done, he vanishes beneath the cross, and each Thomas returns to his grave. The saint here seems to have taken over the character of some pagan god, who, like the Teutonic Odin or Woden, ruled the souls of the departed. In the houses the people listen with awe for the sound of his chariot, and when it is heard make anxious prayer to him for protection from all ill. Before retiring to rest the house-father goes to the cowhouse with holy water and consecrated salt, asperges it from without, and then entering, sprinkles every cow. Salt is also thrown on the head of each animal with the words, “St. Thomas preserve thee from all sickness.” [2] In the Böhmerwald the cattle are fed on this night with consecrated bayberries, bread, and salt, in order to avert disease.

In Upper and Lower Austria St. Thomas’s Eve is reckoned as one of the so-called Rauchnächte (smoke-nights) when houses and farm-buildings must be sanctified with incense and holy water, the other nights being the Eves of Christmas, the New Year, and the Epiphany.

In Germany St. Thomas’s, like St. Andrew’s Eve [3], is a time for forecasting the future, and the methods already described are sometimes employed by girls who wish to behold their future husbands. A widely diffused custom is that of throwing shoes backwards over the shoulders. If the points are found turned towards the door the thrower is destined to leave the house during the year; if they are turned away from it another year will be spent there. In Westphalia a belief prevails that you must eat and drink heartily on this night in order to avert scarcity.

In Lower Austria it is supposed that sluggards can cure themselves of oversleeping by saying a special prayer before they go to bed on St. Thomas’s Eve, and in Westphalia in the mid-nineteenth century the same association of the day with slumber was shown by the schoolchildren’s custom of calling the child who arrived last at school Domesesel (Thomas ass). In Holland, again, the person who lies longest in bed on St. Thomas’s Day is greeted with shouts of “lazybones.” Probably the fact that December 21 is the shortest day is enough to account for this.

In England there was divination by means of “St. Thomas’s onion.” Girls used to peel an onion, wrap it in a handkerchief and put it under their heads at night, with a prayer to the satin to show them their true love in a dream. [4] The most notable English custom on this day, however, was the peregrinations of poor people begging for money or provisions for Christmas. Going “a-gooding,” or “a-Thomassin’,” or “a-mumping,” this was called. [5] Sometimes in return for the charity bestowed, a sprig of holly or mistletoe was given. Possibly the sprig was originally a sacrament of the healthful spirit of growth: it may be compared with the olive- or cornel-branches carried about on New Year’s Eve by Macedonian boys, and also with the St. Martin’s rod. [6]

One more English custom on December 21 must be mentioned—it points to a sometime sacrifice—the bull-baiting practised until 1821 at Wokingham in Berkshire. Its abolition in 1822 caused great resentment among the populace, although the flesh continued to be duly distributed. [7]

Footnotes:

[*] The day of St. Thomas has been moved to July 3 (Roman Catholic) and October 6 (Greek Orthodox), although some Anglicans may still celebrate it on the 21st. At the time this was written, it was firmly established as December 21st since, at least, the twelfth century.

[1] See also “Lord of Misrule

[2] Salt as “the spice of life”, as a preservative, and as medicine has a long history. It does, in fact, have some health benefits (in moderation) and as an antiseptic. See also Web MD “13 Health Uses for Salt.” Also: general health note–– salt and sodium are not the same thing (FDA).

[3] November 29.

[4] Cromniomancy is the art of divination through onions.

[5] See also “Gooding on Saint Thomas’s”.

[6] Roughly, a lantern on a long stick or pole.

[7] Technically, bull-baiting in England was not abolished legally until 1835 with the passage of the Cruelty to Animals Act of that year. The 1822 Cruel Treatment of Cattle Act excluded bulls. See Bull-baiting, History, England)

This article is excerpted from Clement A. Miles’ Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan. It was originally published in 1912, London and is now in the public domain. We have added footnotes and have made some minor edits and abridgments. You can read the original text at Project Gutenberg.

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