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The Feast of St. Thomas

On December 21st, as Christmas Day fast approaches, we celebrate one more commemoration of a saint, the Feast of St. Thomas. We often know St. Thomas, one of Jesus’ twelve apostles, as “Doubting Thomas” for questioning Jesus’ resurrection after the other disciples told him about it. Tradition holds that he is the only apostle who journeyed outside the Roman Empire to preach the Gospel. He is also believed to have crossed the broadest area, including the Persian Empire and India. To celebrate this remarkable man fully, let’s take a closer look at the traditions and stories that bring to life the enduring legacy of St. Thomas.

Who was St. Thomas?

St. Thomas’ life and legacy are primarily known through New Testament accounts, particularly the Gospel of John, as well as through various Christian traditions. Thomas was one of the original twelve disciples Jesus chose to follow him and be trained for the ministry. He walked with Jesus for three years as a disciple and witnessed Jesus’ ministry first-hand. It is important to remember that, like the other disciples, Thomas witnessed the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. He was also among the disciples and women who were in the upper room when the Holy Spirit fell on the day of Pentecost, and he became known as one of the apostles or ones sent out to spread the Gospel of the risen Christ.

St. Thomas in Scripture

St. Thomas’ story in the Bible comes mainly from the Gospel of John. In John 11, Jesus has been informed that his beloved friend, Lazarus, is sick. He intentionally waits with the disciples for two days before returning to him. The disciples encourage Jesus not to go to Lazarus, fearing that he will be killed. However, Thomas faithfully answers, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

In John 14, Jesus is speaking to the disciples about the future, that he will be leaving them and going to prepare a place for them but that he will come back for them and take them with him. 

Thomas says, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”

To this, Jesus replies, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”

Thomas’s skepticism regarding the resurrection of Jesus is well-known. In John 20:24-29, we read that Thomas was absent when the resurrected Jesus first appeared to the other disciples. When they told him about their miraculous encounter, he expressed doubt, saying he needed to see and feel Jesus’ wounds to believe. Later, Jesus appeared to Thomas and invited him to touch his wounds, leading to Thomas’s profound profession of faith, “My Lord and my God!” 

The Ministry of St. Thomas

Christian tradition holds that after the Holy Spirit fell and the church was born, Thomas went out to preach the Gospel in distant lands. We believe Thomas to be the only apostle who went outside the Roman Empire to preach the Gospel and that he also crossed the broadest area. There are Christian communities from the Middle East to China, from southeast Asia to eastern Africa, all claiming to have been evangelized by St. Thomas. When a Jesuit missionary named Antonio Ruiz de Montoya went to Paraguay in 1639, he discovered that the people there claimed that a very holy man named “Pai Thome” lived among them for a time and preached the Gospel to them, wandering and carrying a wooden cross on his back.

One of the most significant of these missionary travels is his journey to India, where he spent the most time and established Christian communities along the Malabar Coast. These Christians, known as the St. Thomas Christians, are still a vibrant, thriving community to this day, which is why St. Thomas is considered the patron saint of India. 

The Death of St. Thomas

Thomas died a martyr’s death in Mylapore, according to tradition, now part of modern-day Chennai (Madras) in India. Hindu priests or other local religious authorities allegedly killed him. They were hostile to his preaching and the conversions that were happening because of him. They speared him to death, which is why he is depicted in art and iconography holding a spear, symbolizing the manner of his martyrdom.

Following his death, tradition holds that St. Thomas was buried in the area where the San Thome Basilica, a Roman Catholic minor basilica in Mylapore, is currently located. The basilica rests over his purported tomb and is revered by many Christians.

The Feast of St. Thomas Around the World

Christians worldwide start preparing for the Christmas feast on the Feast of St. Thomas. They clean their homes, and, finally, gifts are purchased and wrapped. Then, all of the Christmas baking begins! The excitement and anticipation increase with the cleaning, baking, and preparation! Everyone can feel that Christmas Day is almost here! 

In England, the Feast of St. Thomas was a day of charity, where the poor went “a Thomasing” or ask for alms or food. 

Different countries around the world make special foods during this time:

  • In Austria, people bake a special bread called Kletzenbrot. Kletzenbrot is a delicious bread with dried fruit in it. They make one large loaf for the family to eat on Christmas morning, and then make small loaves for every family member. 

  • In Germany, people make a treat called Cristollen. They fold it to look like Christ’s diapers. 

  • Special Christmas cookies are also traditional during this time. Each country has its own particular kind. The United States and Great Britain make sugar cookies. Germany makes a sugar cookie called Springerles and a cookie called Lebkuchen, which means Bread of Life. 

  • In Sweden and Finland, people make gingerbread and mulled wine (glögg in Swedish).

  • In parts of India, especially in Kerala, where the influence of St. Thomas is significant, the feast features dishes like appam (rice pancakes), beef or mutton stews, and fish curries.

How to Celebrate

  • Read John 20:24-29

  • Make it a point to give to the poor or serve them somehow.

  • Clean the house and wrap up all of your Christmas preparations.

  • In honor of the St. Thomas’ Christians, eat Indian food.

  • Begin all of your Christmas baking! We will be making my mom Meredith’s famous iced sugar cookies. They are the best sugar cookies you will ever try and are so fun to decorate!

Meredith’s Iced Sugar Cookies

  • 1 cup butter

  • 1 1/2 cups sifted confectioner’s sugar

  • 1 egg

  • 1 teaspoon vanilla

  • 1/2 teaspoon almond

  • 2 1/2 cups flour

  • 1 teaspoon soda

  • 1 teaspoon cream of tartar

  • food coloring

  • Any edible decorations you want (sprinkles, red hots, silver balls)

Cream the butter and sugar. Add the egg and extracts. Sift flour, soda, and cream of tartar together. Add to butter mixture. Wrap dough in plastic wrap and chill overnight. Roll out and cut into desired shapes. Bake in a 350-degree oven for 10 to 12 minutes.

The icing consists of confectioner’s sugar mixed with teaspoons of half and half until the desired consistency is reached. To color the icing, add the food coloring of your choice.

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