Since mankind domesticated the first dog, animals have played an integral part in humanity’s existence. From Muhammad cutting off his sleeve to keep from waking his favorite cat to Native American tales of dogs killing evil spirits, pets have long since been incorporated into folklores and religions across the world.
While not all religions treat animals with compassion, there are many that do. Some even hold annual celebrations to honor the bond between man and beast. Read on to learn about five religious holidays or festivals that celebrate pets.
Feast of Saint Roch
Saint Roch was born in Montpellier and was the son of the city’s governor. Early on, his life was marked by a series of miracles, including being born to a barren mother and bearing a birthmark in the shape of a red cross on his chest. His parents died when he was twenty, and despite being ordained as Montpellier’s next governor, he gave away his possessions so he could travel to Rome to care for plague victims. When he became ill, he retreated to a nearby forest to die, but a nobleman’s hunting dog brought him bread and healed him by licking his wounds.
Today, he is known as not only the patron saint of the sick but also the patron saint of dogs. He is often depicted with a plague sore on his leg and a dog by his side. To commemorate his death, the Feast of San Rocco is held on August 16th across the world. In Tarija, Bolivia, the Fiesta de San Roque runs for eight days, and many dogs sport colorful ribbons around their necks throughout the festival.
In Japanese mythology, cats are often depicted as supernatural creatures in part due to the shape of their irises, the way they move without sound, and their nocturnal habits. Folklore speaks of the bakeneko, or ghost cat, as a creature with an appetite for lamp oil and a tail that splits into two. They can shapeshift, speak, and even exact revenge on humans who are cruel to animals.
In Kagurazaka, Tokyo, there is a parade recently turned festival dedicated to this mystical creature. Because the bakeneko often disguises itself as a human and walks around on two legs, participants are required to come dressed as cats. Held in October, this festival is free and open to everyone.
Feast of Saint Francis of Assisi
Saint Francis is known for his love of nature, and he preached to not only humans but to animals as well. According to the Fioretti, when Francis heard of a wolf that had been terrorizing the city of Gubbio, he traveled to its lair and asked the wolf for peace. Francis told the wolf he understood that it “had done evil out of hunger,” and he formed a pact between the wolf and the townsfolk. The people of Gubbio would feed the wolf, and in return, the wolf would no longer menace the town.
The feast of Saint Francis is held on October 4th and includes the Blessing of Animals—a ceremony held at church to welcome and bless any animals brought to its doors.
Feast of Saint Gertrude of Nivelles
Gertrude took over the Benedictine monastery in Nivelles, Belgium, after her mother’s death. Pope Clement XII declared March 17th as her universal feast day despite her never having been formally canonized. She is known as the patron saint of cats and those afraid of mice. At a young age, Gertrude rejected a marriage proposition to a son of a duke and swore she would betroth herself to Christ.
She is often depicted with cats, a book and writing quill, or mice on her staff. Each mouse is said to represent a soul trapped in Purgatory to which Gertrude prayed with much devotion for their deliverance. While the origins of her being the patron of cats remain shrouded in superstition, some believe the association is tied to her keeping cats at her monastery and her praying away a plague of rodents. The water from her well was even distributed to the local populace to keep rats away.
Festival of Tihar
Nepal’s Hindu practitioners revere dogs. According to the Mahabharata, when the king of righteousness was asked to abandon his dog before entering heaven, he refused. His dog turned out to be Dharma, his god-father, in disguise. They also believe that two four-eyed dogs serve as the messenger of Yama, the god of death, and can be found guarding the gates of the afterlife.
Every year in autumn, dogs are worshiped during the festival of Tihar. It lasts for five days with each day set aside to honor the deep connection between humans and a different animal such as crows, cows, and oxen. Dogs are celebrated on the second day with garlands made of marigold flowers placed around the necks of both pets and stray dogs. They’re fed delicious meals made from meat, eggs, high-quality dog food, and a deep-fried confection named sel roti.
No matter your religion, pet lovers can always unite to celebrate their dogs and cats. The next time you find yourself holding a pint of green beer on March 17th, otherwise known as St. Patrick’s Day, toast to the patron saint of cats! You know there’ll be plenty of others doing the same all across the world. What holidays do you celebrate with your pets?