Published: 17-03-2010, 15:09


Martinmas, or St. Martin’s Day, falls on November 11. This Christian feast day honors St. Martin of Tours (c. 316-397 A.D.), but many of the popular customs that have been associated with it over the centuries resemble those connected to a much earlier pagan autumn festival. In medieval EUROPE, the arrival of Martinmas signaled the beginning of winter. In early medieval times, the festival marked the beginning of Advent in some parts of Europe.

Born into a pagan family in Hungary in the late fourth century A.D., St. Martin became interested in Christianity and a monastic life at an early age. His military father forced him to become a soldier, however. Many tales about the saint’s life illustrate his generosity. In the most famous of these, Martin, while stationed in Amiens, FRANCE, as a soldier, encountered a beggar shivering miserably in the cold. Martin quickly removed his cloak, cut it in half with his sword, and covered the beggar with the cloth. That night JESUS appeared to Martin in a vision declaring, “Martin the catechumen hath clothed me in this garment.” Shortly afterwards Martin was baptized. At the age of forty he left the army and began a life of religious devotion. He was elected bishop of Tours in 371 A.D.
One legend tells that when the retiring saint heard the news of his election, he was so flustered that he ran away and hid in a barn, but the squawking of a goose soon announced his presence. The goose thereafter became a symbol of the saint. As bishop of Tours, Martin gained a reputation for religious fervor by converting his entire diocese to the new religion of Christianity and replacing the pagan temples with Christian churches. St. Martin eventually became one of the most popular saints of the medieval era.

In pre-Christian times the Germanic peoples of north-central Eu-rope celebrated a great autumn festival. As pastures thinned with the coming of cold weather, they slaughtered the animals that could not be kept alive and preserved most of their meat for the winter. At this time the people gathered together, feasted on fresh meat, and drank. They may also have honored the dead and lit ceremonial bonfires at these celebrations. This festival probably marked the end of the old year and the beginning of the new year in pre-Christian times. According to several scholars, some of the customs associated with medieval YULE celebrations were actually transferred to that season from earlier celebrations of this great autumn festival. At least one researcher has identified the date of this ancient Germanic new year festival as November 11 or 12.

The Christian festival of Martinmas developed in the several hun-dred years that followed the saint’s death in the late fourth century. In 490 A.D. Bishop Perpetuus of Tours called for a forty-day period of partial fasting in preparation for Christmas. This period began on November 11, a day already associated with the veneration of St. Martin, and was known as the “Forty Days’ Fast of St. Martin,” or “St. Martin’s Lent.” In later times these weeks of spiritual preparation for Christmas came to be called Advent. Pope Martin I (d. 655) established Martinmas as a great Church festival. He may have been attempting to provide a Christian rationale for the celebrations that pagan northern Europeans still held around this time of the year. In the Middle Ages some referred to Martinmas by the Latin name Martinalia.
The customs associated with medieval celebrations of Martinmas closely resemble those connected with earlier pagan celebrations. In the Middle Ages the feast of Martinmas marked the beginning of winter. Customs in some regions suggest that it may have been treated as a kind of new year as well. In areas of ENGLAND, France, and GERMANY, leases ended at Martinmas, rents were due, and servants left households in search of new employment. In his eighth-century chronicles, St. Bede (c. 672-735) noted that the Anglo-Saxon term for November was Blot Monath, or “Blood Month,” in reference to the customary slaughtering of animals that took place during that month. Not only did this old custom attach itself firmly to Martinmas, but so also did the feasting and drinking of earlier November celebrations. In medieval times Martinmas may have served as a kind of thanksgiving festival during which the people rejoiced at the close of the harvest and their full barns and larders. In Germany St. Martin became the patron saint of the harvest, as well as the champion of the poor.
The sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation created a new rationale for this traditional November festival. Rather than forbid the celebration of the day because it venerated a Roman Catholic saint, Protestant authorities dedicated the celebrations to Martin Luther, the German founder of the Protestant movement who was born on November 10,1483. In some areas of Germany the celebrations were shifted to November 10; in others the people continued to celebrate on November 11 in the belief that the Protestant reformer was baptized on that day. In Germany the holiday acquired the name Mar-tinsfest or Martinstag, meaning “Martin’s Festival” or “Martin’s Day.”

In Germany and the Netherlands, great bonfires roared on Martinmas or Martinmas Eve in past times. In the fifteenth century, the festival acquired the nickname Funkentag (Spark Day) in Germany, due to the many fires that blazed in honor of the occasion. In the centuries that followed, people in Austria, Germany, DENMARK, and Belgium, also participated in lantern parades on Martinmas Eve, marching through the darkened streets of town with lanterns or jack-o’-lanterns fashioned out of turnips or pumpkins.

The central and enduring customs of Martinmas feature the preparation and consumption of meat and drink. The date at which the holiday falls in the agricultural cycle anchored these customs to it. In Britain the customary slaughter of cattle on Martinmas produced “Martlemas Beef,” the salted and dried meat that sustained people throughout the lean winter months. In Germany, Denmark, IRELAND, and Scandinavia goose became the traditional Martinmas feast, perhaps in reference to the Christian legend connecting the saint with a goose. Another possible explanation for this association between Martinmas and geese arises from an old German agricultural custom; in past centuries people fattened geese for the fall season, when they could be used to pay the taxes due on Martinmas. Not every European country favored roast goose for their Martinmas feast, however. In Portugal the traditional St. Martin’s Day feast featured roast pig.
According to old German and Italian traditions, the year’s new wines were sampled for the first time on Martinmas. People who got drunk on Martinmas were often called “Martinmen,” as were people given to spending their money on short-lived good times. Indeed, so important was this association between Martinmas and wine that St. Martin became the patron saint of tavernkeepers, wine makers, and drunkards. Indulging in large quantities of meat and drink persists as a perennial feature of the holiday. In France the upset stomach that often follows the consumption of too much food and drink is known as mal de Saint Martin, or “Saint Martin’s sickness.” St. Martin’s Day is still observed in Europe with traditional festive meals, most commonly of roast goose.

Long after pagan European religions disappeared, early November retained its association with the commemoration of the dead. Old Scottish and Irish folk beliefs declared that the ghosts of the dead returned to their old homes on Martinmas. In the twentieth century, the festivals of early November still link the season to the remembrance of the dead. On November 5, Guy Fawkes Day, the British commemorate the capture and execution of a group of men who tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament. In Britain and North America many celebrate October 31 as Halloween, a folk festival associated with spirits of the dead. Christians in many countries observe All Saints’ Day on November 1 and All Souls’ Day on November 2. Even the secular calendar retains November 11 as a date sacred to the memory of the dead. After World War I, November 11 was established as Armistice Day and dedicated to the memory of the soldiers who died in that war. (In Britain and Canada the day is known as Remembrance Day). In 1954 Armistice Day became Veterans Day in the United States, and its purpose broadened to include the recognition of all those who have served in the United States armed forces.
In some European countries St. Martin became a gift-bearing folk figure, much like ST. NICHOLAS. He was often depicted as a bishop garbed in red robes riding a white horse. In Belgium and other European countries he distributes sweets to well-behaved children on St. Martin’s Eve, but badly behaved youngsters may receive a rod instead.
A variety of folk beliefs and sayings link Martinmas with the weather. In Europe the temperate days that often surround Martinmas may be referred to as “St. Martin’s Summer.” Legend has it that God first sent mild weather at this time of year to shield St. Martin from the cold, since he had just given half of his cloak to a beggar. An English folk belief suggests that if Martinmas is mild, the coming winter will be severe, whereas if frost occurs before Martinmas, the winter will be gentle.

In the twentieth century Martinmas Eve fires still blazed along the banks of the Rhine and Moselle rivers in Germany. Although fire safety has become an issue in recent decades, the fires burn on in some parts of Germany. Excited children collect cardboard, tree branches, and other tinder for weeks in anticipation of the event. Lantern parades continue to be celebrated in Germany, although they have become primarily a children’s custom. Children fashion elaborate lanterns from paper or recreate the traditional turnip lanterns. The finished lanterns dangle from a wooden pole. In some areas the lantern processions end with a reenactment of St. Martin’s most famous deed, sharing his cloak with a beggar. Afterwards the children disperse, singing songs (Martinslieder) and reciting rhymes for neighbors and shopkeepers. In return, they are given small GIFTS (Martinswecken), such as nuts, candies, apples, cookies, and coins.