St. Martin's Day

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St. Martin character in a procession in West Germany

St. Martin's Day, also known as the Feast of St. Martin, Martinstag or Martinmas, the Feast of St Martin of Tours or Martin le Miséricordieux, is a time for feasting celebrations. This is the time when autumn wheat seeding was completed, and the annual slaughter of fattened cattle produced "Martinmas beef".[1] Historically, hiring fairs were held where farm laborers would seek new posts.

November 11 is the feast day of St. Martin of Tours, who started out as a Roman soldier. He was baptized as an adult and became a monk. It is understood that he was a kind man who led a quiet and simple life. The most famous legend of his life is that he once cut his cloak in half to share with a beggar during a snowstorm, to save the beggar from dying from the cold. That night he dreamed that Jesus was wearing the half-cloak. Martin heard Jesus say to the angels: "Here is Martin, the Roman soldier who is not baptised; he has clothed me." [2]

Customs[edit]

St. Martin was known as friend of the children and patron of the poor.[3] This holiday originated in France, then spread to Germany, Scandinavia, and Eastern Europe. It celebrates the end of the agrarian year and the beginning of harvesting.[4] From the late 4th century to the late Middle Ages, much of Europe, including the UK, engaged in a period of fasting beginning on the day after St. Martin's Day, November 11. This fast period lasted 40 days, and was therefore, called "Quadragesima Sancti Martini", Latin for "the forty days of St. Martin." Sundays were not counted as part of the fasting period. Gaudete Sunday, which can fall anywhere between December 11 through 17, was also not counted as a day of fasting, thus giving the 40-day count. On St. Martin's Eve, people ate and drank very heartily one last time before they started to fast. This period of fasting was later shortened and called "Advent" by the Church.[5]

The goose became a symbol of St. Martin of Tours because of a legend that when trying to avoid being ordained bishop he had hidden in a goose pen, where he was betrayed by the cackling of the geese. St. Martin's feast day falls in November, when geese are ready for killing. St. Martin’s Day was an important medieval autumn feast, and the custom of eating goose spread to Sweden from France. It was primarily observed by the craftsmen and noblemen of the towns. In the peasant community, not everyone could afford to eat goose, so many ate duck or hen instead.[6]

Though no mention of Saint Martin's connection with viticulture is made by Gregory of Tours or other early hagiographers, he is nonetheless credited with a prominent role in spreading wine-making throughout the Touraine region and facilitating the planting of many vines. The Greek myth that Aristaeus first discovered the concept of pruning the vines after watching a goat eat some of the foliage has been appropriated to Martin.[7] Martin is also credited with introducing the Chenin blanc grape varietal, from which most of the white wine of western Touraine and Anjou is made.

Historical meaning of Martinmas[edit]

Martinmas actually has two meanings: in the agricultural calendar it marks the beginning of the natural winter, but in the economic calendar it is seen as the end of autumn. The feast coincides not only with the end of the Octave of All Saints, but with harvest-time, the time when newly produced wine is ready for drinking, and the end of winter preparations, including the butchering of animals. (An old English saying is "His Martinmas will come as it does to every hog," meaning "he will get his comeuppance" or "everyone must die".) Because of this, St. Martin's Feast is much like the American Thanksgiving - a celebration of the earth's bounty. Because it also comes before the penitential season of Advent, it is seen as a mini "carnivale", with all the feasting and bonfires. As at Michaelmas on 29 September, goose is eaten in most places. Following these holidays, women traditionally moved their work indoors for the winter, while men would proceed to work in the forests.

In some countries, Martinmas celebrations begin at the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of this eleventh day of the eleventh month. In others, the festivities commence on St. Martin's Eve. Bonfires are built, and children carry lanterns in the streets after dark, singing songs for which they are rewarded with candy.

Celebrations around the world[edit]

Austria[edit]

"Martinloben" is celebrated as a harvest festival. Events include art exhibitions, wine tastings, and live music. “Martinigansl” (roasted goose) is the traditional dish of the season.[8]

Belgium[edit]

The day is celebrated on the evening of November 11 in a small part of Belgium (mainly in the east of Flanders and around Ypres). Children go through the streets with paper lanterns and candles, and sing songs about St. Martin. Sometimes, a man dressed as St. Martin rides on a horse in front of the procession.

In the east part of the Belgian province of West Flanders, especially around Ypres, children receive presents from either their friends or family as supposedly coming from St. Martin on November 11. In other areas it is customary that children receive gifts later in the year from either their friends or family as supposedly coming from Saint Nicholas on December 5 or 6 (called Sinterklaas in Belgium and the Netherlands) or Santa Claus on December 25.

In some areas, there is a traditional goose meal, although in West Flanders there is no specific meal; in other areas it is more a day for children, with toys brought on the night of 10 to 11 November.

Slovenia, Croatia[edit]

In Slovenia and Croatia, St. Martin's Day (Martinovanje, Martinje) marks the day when the must traditionally turns to wine. The must is usually considered impure and sinful, until it is baptised and turned into wine. The baptism is performed by someone who dresses up as a bishop and blesses the wine; this is usually done by the host. Another person is chosen as the godfather of the wine. The foods traditionally eaten on the day are goose and home-made or store bought mlinci.

Slovakia[edit]

In Slovakia, the Feast of St. Martin is like a "2nd Birthday" for those named after this saint. Small presents or money are common gifts for this special occasion. Tradition says that if it snows on the feast of St. Martin, November 11, then St. Martin came on a white horse and there will be snow on Christmas day. However, if it doesn't snow on this day, then St. Martin came on a dark horse and it will not snow on Christmas.

Czech Republic[edit]

A Czech proverb connected with the Feast of St. Martin - Martin přijíždí na bílém koni (trans. "Martin is coming on a white horse") - signifies that the first half of November in the Czech Republic is the time when it often starts to snow. St. Martin’s Day is the traditional feast day in the run-up to Advent. Czechs roast goose and drink the Czech version of Beaujolais nouveau, Svatomartinské vino, a young wine from the recent harvest. Wine shops and restaurants around Prague pour the first of the St. Martin’s wines at 11:11 a.m. Many restaurants offer special menus for the day, featuring the traditional roast goose.[9]

Denmark[edit]

In Denmark, Mortensaften, meaning the evening of St. Martin, is celebrated with traditional dinners, while the day itself is rarely recognized. (Morten is the Danish vernacular form of Martin.) The background is the same legend as mentioned above, but nowadays the goose is most often replaced with a duck due to size, taste and/or cost.

Estonia[edit]

In Estonia, Martinmas signifies the merging of Western European customs with local Balto-Finnic pagan traditions. It also contains elements of earlier worship of the dead as well as a certain year-end celebration that predates Christianity. For centuries Mardipäev (Martinmas) has been one of the most important and cherished days in the Estonian folk calendar. It remains popular today, especially among young people and the rural population. Martinmas celebrates the end of the agrarian year and the beginning of the winter period.

Among Estonians, Martinmas also marks the end of the period of All Souls, as well as the autumn period in the Estonian popular calendar when the souls of ancestors were worshiped, a period that lasted from November 1 to Martinmas (November 11). On this day children disguise themselves as men and go from door to door, singing songs and telling jokes to receive sweets.

Germany[edit]

St. Martin's procession with children carrying paper lanterns in West Germany in 1949

A widespread custom in Germany is bonfires on St. Martin's eve, called "Martinsfeuer." In recent years, the processions that accompany those fires have been spread over almost a fortnight before Martinmas. At one time, the Rhine River valley would be lined with fires on the eve of Martinmas. In the Rhineland region, Martin's day is celebrated traditionally with a get-together during which a roasted suckling pig is shared with the neighbours.

The nights before and on the night of Nov. 11, children walk in processions carrying lanterns, which they made in school, and sing Martin songs. Usually, the walk starts at a church and goes to a public square. A man on horseback dressed like St. Martin accompanies the children. When they reach the square, Martin’s bonfire is lit and Martin’s pretzels are distributed.[3]

In some regions of Germany (e.g. Rhineland or Bergisches Land) in a separate procession the children also go from house to house with their lanterns, sing songs and get candy in return.

The origin of the procession of lanterns is unclear. To some, it is a substitute for the St. Martin bonfire, which is still lit in a few cities and villages throughout Europe. It formerly symbolized the light that holiness brings to the darkness, just as St. Martin brought hope to the poor through his good deeds. Even though the tradition of the large, crackling fire is gradually being lost, the procession of lanterns is still practiced.[10]

The tradition of the St. Martin’s goose or "Martinsgans", which is typically served on the evening of St. Martin’s feast day following the procession of lanterns, most likely evolved from the well-known legend of St. Martin and the geese. "Martinsgans" is usually served in restaurants, roasted, with red cabbage and dumplings.[10]

In some regions of Germany, the traditional sweet of Martinmas is "Martinshörnchen", a pastry shaped in the form of a croissant, which recalls both the hooves of St. Martin's horse and, by being the half of a pretzel, the parting of his mantle. In parts of western Germany these pastries are shaped like gingerbread men (Stutenkerl).

Latvia[edit]

Mārtiņi (Martin's) is traditionally celebrated by Latvians on November 10, marking the end of the preparations for winter, such as salting meat and fish, storing the harvest and making preserves. Mārtiņi also marks the beginning of masquerading and sledding, among other winter activities.

Malta[edit]

A Maltese "Borża ta' San Martin"

St. Martin's Day (Jum San Martin in Maltese) is celebrated in Malta on the Sunday nearest to November 11. Children are given a bag full of fruits and sweets associated with the feast, known by the Maltese as Il-Borża ta' San Martin, "St. Martin's bag". This bag may include walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds, chestnuts, dried or processed figs, seasonal fruit (like oranges, tangerines, apples and pomegranates) and "Saint Martin's bread roll" (Maltese: Ħobża ta' San Martin).

There is a traditional rhyme associated with this custom:

Ġewż, Lewż, Qastan, Tin

Kemm inħobbu lil San Martin.

(Walnuts, Almonds, Chestnuts, Figs
I love Saint Martin so much.)

A feast is celebrated in the village of Baħrija on the outskirts of Rabat (Malta), including a procession led by the statue of Saint Martin. There is also a fair, and a show for local animals. San Anton School, a private school on the island, organises a walk to and from a cave especially associated with Martin in remembrance of the day.

A number of places in Malta are named after this saint, including San Martin on the outskirts of St. Paul's Bay, and Ġebel San Martin outside of Żejtun.

Netherlands[edit]

Children going door to door with paper lanterns on St. Martin's Day in the Netherlands

The day is celebrated on the evening of November 11 (the day Saint Martin died) in some parts of the Netherlands, where he is known as Sint-Maarten. As soon it gets dark, children up to the age of 11 or 12 (primary school age) go door to door with hand-crafted lanterns made of hollowed-out sugar beet or, more recently, paper, singing songs such as "Sinte Sinte Maarten," hoping to receive candy in return, similar to Halloween. In the past, poor people would visit farms on November 11 to get food for the winter. In the 1600s, the city held boat races on the Ij. 400 to 500 light craft, both rowing boats and sailboats, took part under the eyes of a vast crowd on the banks.

Poland[edit]

Procession of Saint Martin in Poznan, 2006

St. Martin's Day is celebrated mainly in the capital city of Poznań. On November 11, the people of Poznań buy and eat considerable amounts of "Rogale" (pronounced Ro-gah-leh), locally produced croissants, made specially for this occasion from half-French (explanation needed) paste with white poppy seeds, crushed almonds or walnuts, and dainties, so-called "Rogal świętomarciński" or Martin Croissants or St. Martin Croissants. In recent years, competition amongst local bakeries has become fierce for producing the best "Rogale," and very often bakeries proudly display a certificate of compliance with authentic, traditional recipes. Poznanians celebrate with a feast, specially organised by the city. There are different concerts, a St. Martin's parade and a fireworks show.

Portugal[edit]

In Portugal, St. Martin's Day is commonly associated with the celebration of the maturation of the year's wine, being traditionally the first day when the new wine can be tasted. It is celebrated, traditionally around a bonfire, eating the magusto, chestnuts roasted under the embers of the bonfire (sometimes dry figs and walnuts), and drinking a local light alcoholic beverage called água-pé (literally "foot water", made by adding water to the pomace left after the juice is pressed out of the grapes for wine - traditionally by stomping on them in vats with bare feet, and letting it ferment for several days), or the stronger jeropiga (a sweet liquor obtained in a very similar fashion, with aguardente added to the water). Água-pé, though no longer available for sale in supermarkets and similar outlets (it is officially banned for sale in Portugal), is still generally available in small local shops from domestic production.

Leite de Vasconcelos regarded the magusto as the vestige of an ancient sacrifice to honor the dead and stated that it was tradition in Barqueiros to prepare, at midnight, a table with chestnuts for the deceased family members to eat.[11] The people also mask their faces with the dark wood ashes from the bonfire. A typical Portuguese saying related to Saint Martin's Day:

É dia de São Martinho;
comem-se castanhas, prova-se o vinho.
(It is St. Martin's Day,
we'll eat chestnuts, we'll taste the wine.)

This period is also quite popular because of the usual good weather period that occurs in Portugal in this time of year, called Verão de São Martinho (St. Martin's Summer). It is frequently tied to the legend since Portuguese versions of St. Martin's legend usually replace the snowstorm with rain (because snow is extremely rare in most parts of Portugal, while rain is common at that time of the year) and have Jesus bringing the end of it, thus making the "summer" a gift from God.

Spain[edit]

In Spain, St. Martin's Day is the traditional day for slaughtering fattened pigs for the winter. This tradition has given way to the popular saying "A cada cerdo le llega su San Martín", which translates to "Every pig has its St. Martin's day." The phrase is used to indicate that wrongdoers eventually get their comeuppance.

Sweden[edit]

St. Martin's Day is a celebration of the goose; all other connotations have largely been forgotten. In early November, geese are ready for slaughter, and on St. Martin's Eve, November 10, it is time for the traditional dinner of roast goose. Some people cook the dish themselves but the majority go out to restaurants. The custom is particularly popular in Skåne in southern Sweden, where goose farming has long been practised, but it has gradually spread northwards. A proper goose dinner also includes apple charlotte.[12]

Switzerland[edit]

Its celebration has mainly remained a tradition in the Swiss Catholic region of the Ajoie in the canton of Jura. The traditional gargantuan feast, the Repas du Saint Martin, includes all the parts of freshly butchered pigs, accompanied by shots of Damassine, and lasting for at least 5 hours.

United Kingdom[edit]

In the United Kingdom, St. Martin's Day is known as Martinmas (or sometimes Martlemass). It is one of the term days in Scotland. Many schools celebrate St. Martin's day. Many schools are also named after St. Martin.

Martlemass beef was from cattle slaughtered at Martinmas and salted or otherwise preserved for the winter. The now largely archaic term "St. Martin's Summer" referred to the fact that in Britain people often believed there was a brief warm spell common around the time of St. Martin's Day, before the winter months began in earnest. A similar term that originated in America is "Indian Summer".

In Northern Ireland the village and surrounding parish of Desertmartin owes its name to Saint Columba (also referred to as Colmcille) who visited there in the sixth century. He erected a church there as a retreat and named it in honour of St. Martin. Hence the name in Irish Díseart Mhartain or 'Retreat of Martin'.

In the United Kingdom, however, November 11 is now better known for being Remembrance Day.

Other customs[edit]

In Ireland, on the eve of St. Martin's Day, it is tradition to sacrifice a cockerel by bleeding it. The blood was collected and sprinkled on the four corners of the house. Also in Ireland, no wheel of any kind was to turn on St. Martin's Day, because Martin was thrown into a mill stream and killed by the wheel and so it was not right to turn any kind of wheel on that day.

The Auvergne region of central France traditionally hosts horse fairs on St. Martin’s Day.

In 2012 a St. Martin's Day Celebration was held in St. Paul, Minnesota with a traditional lantern procession around Rice Park. The evening included performances by the Twin Cities German Immersion School's students, Blumenkranz dance group, and band.[13]

Armistice Day[edit]

'Armistice Day' (also known as 'Remembrance Day' and 'Veterans Day') is on 11 November and commemorates the armistice signed between the Allies of World War I and Germany at Compiègne, France, for the cessation of hostilities on the Western Front, which took effect at eleven o'clock in the morning — the "eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month" of 1918.

Freeing of the Prussian serfs[edit]

The edict of 9 October 1807, one of the first and central reforms of Baron Heinrich vom Stein's Prussian reforms, liberated all the Prussian peasants by 11 November 1810 at the latest. This edict began the process of abolishing serfdom and its hereditary character.

See also[edit]

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