How Germany marks Thomastag, the shortest day of the year

How Germany marks Thomastag, the shortest day of the year

The daylight hours dwindle as we head towards the Christmas holidays, reaching a peak on December 20, the longest night of the year, and December 21, the shortest day of the year. In Germany, this night and day are known as Thomasnacht and Thomastag, and in traditional belief are thought to be times of strange goings-on, bringing with them their own unique superstitions and traditions. 


Originally honouring the “doubting” apostle Thomas, St Thomas’ Day has traditionally been celebrated on the shortest day of the year because in scripture he was the last of the apostles to become convinced of Jesus’s resurrection. 

In the Bible, Thomas tells the other disciples he will not believe that Jesus has been resurrected until he touches the wounds left by the crucifixion with his own fingers. A few days later, he meets Jesus, who tells him not to disbelieve and allows him to touch his wounds. Thomas asks for Jesus’s forgiveness.

saint thomas

Image credit: Renata Sedmakova /

Thomas therefore became the namesake for the longest night of the year, because he was the one stuck in the “night” of doubt for the longest. 

When is Thomastag?

The feast of Saint Thomas was inserted into the Roman Catholic calendar in the ninth century and assigned the day of December 21. Since 1970, however, the Roman Catholic calendar has actually celebrated St Thomas’ feast day on July 3, the date the apostle was mentioned in the Martyrology of St. Jerome

Many Christians, including traditionalist Roman Catholics, Lutherans and Anglicans, still celebrate his feast day on December 21. In Germany, the Thomas Day (Thomastag) observance is still on December 21. A German saying goes: „Ab Thomastag wächst der Tag um einen Hahnenschrei.“ (“After Thomas Day, the day grows by a rooster crow.”)

The beginning of the Raunächte

Although Thomastag is predominantly a Catholic observation, a lot of the traditions surrounding the day hark back to pagan times, when the “long night” marked a fearful time of ghouls, monsters, and superstitious beliefs. 

In the Celtic tradition, Thomasnacht marks the start of the Raunächte or Rumpelnächte (“Rough Nights”), the 12 nights that, varyingly, go from St Thomas’ Day to New Year’s Day, or from Christmas to Epiphany, depending on the region. 

The name Raunacht comes from the Middle High German “ruch”, which means “fur”. Back in pagan times, the shortest day of the year would mark the zenith of a long, cold winter, when people had to survive on the supplies of food that they had built up over the summer. 

Understandably, this would have been a difficult period arousing a lot of fears and superstitions. People believed that during the Raunächte the barriers between the realms of the living and the dead were more open than usual, allowing ghosts, demons and monsters to travel over and wreak havoc. People would therefore take measures to protect themselves, their homes and their families

St Thomas Day traditions

These old superstitions are the source of many Thomastag traditions and beliefs that still hold today. Here are a few that you might hear people in Germany mention or even act out!  


The mass of otherworldly forces descending on Earth over the Raunächte period meant that many people believed it was a good time to predict the future. On Thomastag, many people would try to see what the fates had in store for them with practices like lead pouring (Bleigiessen) and shoe tossing (Schuhwerfen). 

Lead pouring involves pouring liquid lead into a glass of water and trying to divine the portents from the shape that the cooling lead forms. People hoping to marry, on the other hand, might toss a shoe or slipper over their heads. The person whose shoe falls with the tip facing the door could look forward to a wedding the following year. 

lead pouring

Other folk beliefs informed German girls that if they slept upside down on Thomastag (with their feet on the pillow and their head near the foot of the bed), they would dream of their future husbands. 

In German and Austrian regions, Thomastag is also connected with baking Kletzenbrot or Hutzelbrot, a fruit bread. In Germany, some people believed that if the cook interrupted their kneading to run outside and hug all of the nearby trees, those trees were destined to have a fruitful harvest in the coming year. 

Chasing out demons

As on Halloween, Walpurgisnacht and other times of the year, St Thomas’s Day was another time when people sought to chase away demons. They believed that evil spirits feared loud noises, and so they rang bells, cracked whips and held loud parades in frightening masks. 

In some parts of West Frisia, Lower Silesia and former eastern federal states, some churches still to this day ring their bells for 12 days to drive away evil spirits. In some households, family members walk through the premises spreading incense and sprinkling holy water, to protect the house from evil spirits. 

Rising early and working hard

In some parts of Germany and the Netherlands, the days surrounding Thomastag are considered a period to rise early and be productive. If you are the last person to arrive at work or school on Thomastag, you might find yourself branded a “lazybones” or “Domesesel” (Thomas donkey). 

Some people in Thuringia and Bohemia still refer to St Thomas’s Eve as “Spinning Night”, in reference to the habit of wool spinners staying at work longer than usual in order to earn more money ahead of Christmas. 

spinning wool thread

Elsewhere, acts of charity are encouraged around this time (as they are at Christmas, more generally), and historically on St Thomas’s Day employers in Germany were expected to make small gifts to their employees to allow them to purchase some Christmas treats.

In parts of the Lüneburg Heath, children and young people go from house to house playing music and singing in exchange for sweets treats, a tradition called “Thomsen”, similar to the parades that take place on St Martin’s Day.  

Slaughtering the Christmas pig

And finally, in parts of Bavaria, traditionally a pig would have been slaughtered on Thomastag to have the meat and sausages ready for Christmas, when the whole family and the farm hands would sit down for a great feast of roasted pork. 

Stealing another man’s Christmas pig, either alive or after it had been butchered, was considered a great feat (similar to stealing the Maypole), so some owners slept downstairs in their pigsty in the run up to Thomastag, to prevent anyone from getting to the pig. 

The days are now getting longer

Congratulations - you’ve made it to the shortest day of the year! The nights will only get longer from here. Whether you’re trying to tell the future, engaging in acts of charity, or just getting yourself prepared for the Christmas season, we wish you a happy Thomastag



Abi Carter

Managing Editor at IamExpat Media. Abi studied German and History at the University of Manchester and has since lived in Berlin, Hamburg and Utrecht, working since 2017 as a writer,...

Read more



Leave a comment