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The Feast Day of St Thomas the Apostle was established in the 12th century and was celebrated on 21 December up until 1969. The feast day was then changed to 3 July so that it would no longer coincide with the days of Advent. Even so, it is still celebrated by some churches on the original date.
Thomas the Apostle was one of the twelve disciples of Jesus and is probably best known as the disciple who did not believe in Jesus’ resurrection until he saw the physical evidence for himself. According to church tradition, Thomas travelled east to preach the Gospel after the death of Jesus and is thought to have reached the state of Kerala in India, where he founded a community of Christians who are known to this day as Saint Thomas Christians.
There were various customs across Europe associated with the Feast Day of St Thomas and these included charitable giving, marriage divination, making loud noises as protection against evil spirits, and the baking of special dried fruit bread.
In Norway it was the custom to have all Christmas preparations completed by St Thomas’ Day. Baking, brewing, sewing, the slaughtering of animals, chopping firewood and all activities of this kind had to be finished by that day.
This tradition was also evident in the Shetland Islands. In this recording from 1961, Thomas Alexander Robertson recites two rhymes about St Thomas’ Day, or Tammasmass Day as it was otherwise known. Work was forbidden on these days and both of the rhymes warn against it.
‘Two rhymes about St Thomas’ Day – T A Robertson’:
Here is a transcription of the rhymes:
To shape or shoo [sew],
To bake or brew,
To reel a pirn [bobbin] or wind a clew [wool ball]
Allay sull patyun will tak [take] you.
The bairn [child] in the midder’s wame [mother’s womb]
Does greet [cry] and mak gret dule [make great mourning]
If wark [work] be wrocht [done] on Tammasmass nicht [St Thomas’ night]
Five nichts [nights] afore [before] Yule.