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The Feast of St. Thomas: Lively
& Manly Customs

Rachel L. Lozowski

German men shooting in the Alps to scare away demons & salute Christmas

The last days of Advent were always adorned with charming customs as Catholics strove to dispel evil and practice charity in preparation for Christmas.

In parts of central Europe, it was traditional for the men to perform certain vigorous ceremonies to drive away the demons before Christmas. It was common belief that spirits and demons prowled the earth in greater numbers on these nights because the darkness was at its height.

To dispel the demons, men would go into the mountains cracking whips, shooting guns, ringing hand bells and parading with grotesque masks on the days before and after Christmas. In German countries, these nights were called Rauhnächte (Rough Nights). The most important nights for these practices were Thomas Night (December 21), Christmas Eve, New Year's Eve and Epiphany.


‘Whipcrackers’ drive away demons in the region of Berchtesgadener Land

On the eve of the Feast of St. Thomas, the man of the house took one of his sons or farm hands on a walk around the farmyard, barns and fields to drive away the demons by sprinkling holy water and carrying burning incense. The incense was often mixed with pieces of palm branches from Easter and blessed herbs from the Feast of the Assumption.

As the men blessed the home property, the women and the rest of the household gathered by the family altar saying a Rosary for Heavenly aid in that undertaking.

England Thomasing

In England on St. Thomas's Day, it was customary for poor women to go “Thomasing” or “gooding” at the houses of their wealthier neighbors. These poor women, often donning red cloaks, begged in the name of St. Thomas for food (especially wheat for frumenty and flour for Yule bread) and alms to be able to celebrate the coming festival of Christmas in a fitting manner. Many of the recipients of alms would give their benefactors sprigs of holly or mistletoe. In a spirit of hospitality, the benefactors would often invite the poor into their home to give them spiced wine.


English ladies go ‘Thomasing’

From this tradition came the old rhyme: (Christ Lore)

Well-a-ay, well-a-day, St. Thomas goes too soon away;
Then your gooding we do pray, for the good time will not stay.
The longest night & the shortest day!
Please remember St. Thomas's Day!

In Finland, it was traditional to clean the house on Thomas's Day. While the washing was being done, the village blacksmith, priest and locksmith went to each house asking for alms to recompense their labors. The men were always well received, given food and drink in addition to money.

The search for an inn

A popular custom was to have people imitate Our Lady and St. Joseph searching for an inn on each of the nine nights before Christmas. In central Europe, this custom was known as “Herbergsuchen” (“Search for an Inn”) and in Mexico it was known as “Posada” (Inn).

In Mexico and some regions in the United States, the custom of Las Posadas takes place on the nine nights before Christmas. A girl is chosen to ride a donkey dressed as Our Lady and a boy plays St. Joseph; sometimes an angel, shepherds and the Three Wise Men accompany them.


Posadas in Tucson in the 1960s

The Holy Family processes through the streets followed by all the families of the neighborhood or parish to a designated house; St. Joseph knocks on the door singing the traditional song, Para Pedir Posadas. The inhabitants of the chosen houses – the “innkeepers” – refuse entrance multiple times.

Finally, after stops at multiple houses, the last home welcomes the Holy Family, along with the whole neighborhood, to pray the Christmas Novena and Rosary and enjoy a fine repast of good Mexican food and drinks.

On the last evening (Christmas Eve), the procession is at its grandest with two new children being added to act as the godparents of Our Lord. When the procession knocks at the door of the final house, the door is opened to reveal a nativity scene into which the godparents place an effigy of the Christ Child. At this grand final arrival of Christmas night, the Mexicans display their joy with fireworks, piñatas and other festivities followed by Midnight Mass.

In Austria, Herbergsuchen was accompanied by ancient Advent carols and the song, “Wer Klopfet an.” This charming and popular song is played and sung, with St. Joseph and Our Lady going to various inns and being refused by cold innkeepers.

In German Alpine regions and parts of Hungary, families would pass an image of Our Lady – specially blessed by the parish priest on the First Sunday of Advent – from one home to the next on each of the nine nights. The family honored by hosting the image for the day would adorn it with candles, and in an evening ceremony they gathered round her to sing and honor Our Lady as the expectant Mother (A favorite hymn was “Maria, die schönste Schäferin”.

A family in the Alps returns home after delivering the holy image to a neighbors

After the last hymn, the whole household including the servants, would don their cloaks and lanterns to follow the image, praying all the while, as a young man carried it to the next farm. The new family would receive the treasured image with great joy, giving it due honor before they too would have to accompany it to the next family.

The family who received the image invited the visiting family inside to have drinks and refreshment before the fire. Warmed with good cheer and victuals, the visiting family would traverse the snowy paths back to their home. The last family who received the image or statue would process to the church on Christmas Eve to return the image to its proper place.

In some areas, the image would continue to move from house to house throughout the whole Christmas season until Candlemas, since every family wanted the honor of welcoming the Holy Family to their home.

anlocken boys

Anlocken boys

In some areas of Germany, it was traditional for nine school boys to take turns honoring a statue of St. Joseph on each of the Christmas nights. The boy who had the statue on the first day would pray to St. Joseph in the evening. Then he would bring the statue to the next boy's house and join him in the evening prayers before the statue. By Christmas Eve, all eight boys would join the last boy in his home to give a final homage to St. Joseph.

Then, the boys would process through the town with the statue accompanied by nine girls dressed in white. The procession would end in the church where the statue would be placed in his special place in the Creche.

In Austria and Franconia the custom of Anklöckeln (Knocking) was practiced on the three Thursdays before Christmas. Children or men dressed as shepherds and paraded from house to house. singing Advent carols (especially “Gott griaß enk, Leitln”), playing the flute, and reciting poems to spread the good news of the approaching feast. The children were rewarded with food and drink or some other gift.

In parts of England during the week before Christmas, the poor women of the village would process with “Advent Images” (two dolls representing Our Lady and the Christ Child) to every house, begging for a halfpenny. They sang a beautiful carol about the seven joys of Mary as they processed.

In Yorkshire, the women carried only one “image” of the Christ Child in a box adorned with evergreens and flowers. Every household who gave an alms to these women was allowed to take one flower or piece of greenery from the box, which was believed to cure toothaches.

All over England it was considered a terrible affront to refuse a penny to the bearers of the “Advent Images.” It was also seen as a great misfortune to miss being visited by these holy images. (Book of Days)


Pifferari play before Our Lady to ease her expectation

Italians and Latin American peoples prepared for Christmas with a Novena to the Holy Child (La Novena del Nino). A ceremony was performed in the church on each of the nine days preceding Christmas in which joyful songs were sung and ardent prayers said before the empty manger.

In Castelbuono, Italy, people dressed as shepherds and the Holy Family and went from house to house on these nine nights singing the traditional song, Viaggiu Dulurusu. In Marianopoli, local men walked through the streets playing traditional lullabies, ninnaredda, to herald the imminent coming of the Christ Child.

The pifferari (bagpipe-players) came down from the Italian mountain regions into the cities of Naples and Rome during these nights. These men would play sweet music on their pipes through the streets of the cities stopping before images of Our Lady to soothe her in her expectation of the birth of her Son and before carpenter shops to honor St. Joseph. (Curiosities of Popular Customs…)

Restoring the customs

The custom of Herbergsuchen or Posadas can be restored even if merely within the immediate family or household. Every night beginning on December 17, the family – dressed for the parts – can process around the house carrying a statue of Our Lady or image of the Holy Family and singing traditional Advent carols.

Each night the procession can end at a different family member's room where the image can be placed on an altar prepared for it. The person receiving the Holy Image should do so with devotion and seriousness, striving to give due reparation to the Holy Family for the refusal of the inn keepers.

These age old customs seem to fulfill well the supplication of Dom Gueranger: "Let us enter into the spirit of the Church; let us reflect on the great Day which is coming; that thus we may take our share in these the last and most earnest solicitations of the Church imploring her Spouse to come, and to which He at length yields.” (Liturgical Year, vol. 1, p. 484)

moutain herders italy

Italian sheeperds serenading Our Lady


Blason de Charlemagne
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Posted December 21, 2020

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