Nowadays, in many Western countries the latter half of autumn signals the coming of Halloween on October 31st. Halloween is the last major celebration before Christmas, and already in early October spooky decorations and costumes creep into shops, schools and houses. However, in many European countries, Halloween is a relatively new celebration which has only begun to be widely celebrated in the last few decades, if at all. For countries such as the Netherlands, Germany and Portugal, Martinmas, or Saint Martin’s Day, is the more prominent autumnal celebration.
Saint Martin of Tours was a Roman soldier who was baptised as an adult and became a bishop in a French town. The most notable of his saintly acts was he had cut his cloak in half to share with a beggar during a snowstorm, to save him from the cold as then that night, he dreamt of Jesus, wearing the half-cloak and saying to the angels, “here is Martin, the Roman soldier who is now baptised; he has clothed me.” Saint Martin died on November 8, 397, and was buried three days later.
Feast and celebration of Saint Martin
This holiday feast-day originated in France, then spread to the Low Countries, the British Isles, Galicia, Germany, Scandinavia, and Eastern Europe. Akin to “Christmas”, Martinmas (or Martinmass, Martin-mass) is the day when Martin is honoured in the Mass. Its feast and meat-permitted day celebrates the end of the agrarian year, the main annual harvest. Saint Martin was known as friend of the children and patron of the poor.
In the agricultural calendar widely in Europe the day marked natural winter’s start, and in the economic calendar, the end of autumn. The feast coincides with the end of the Octave of All Saints and of harvest time. Much brewed beer and wine becomes first ready, which period sees the end of winter preparations, including the butchering of animals. (An old English saying, replicated in Galician as to piglets, is “His Martinmas will come as it does to every hog.”, the word being a euphemism for slaughter). Because of this, the feast is much like the American Thanksgiving: a celebration of the earth’s bounty to humans. Because it also comes before a penitential season, it became a minor carnival(e) feasting, dancing and bonfires. As at Michaelmas on 29 September, goose is eaten in most places.
In some countries, Martinmas celebrations begin at the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of this eleventh day of the eleventh month (that is, at 11:11 am on November 11). In others, the festivities commence on St. Martin’s Eve (November 10). Bonfires are built and children carry lanterns in the streets after dark, singing songs for which they are rewarded with candy.
The date of Saint Martin’s death on the 11th coincides with the end of harvest, and so many traditional celebrations are synonymous with enjoying a feast or indulging in certain delicacies. In Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands, schoolchildren design paper lanterns and visit houses in the neighbourhood singing songs in exchange for sweets.
Here is an example of a Dutch ‘Saint Maarten’ song:
Elf november is de dag, dat mijn lichtje branden mag
Eleventh November is the day, that my lantern may shine
In Portugal, the date also celebrates the end of wine season. The Portuguese celebrate in large communities by sampling newly harvested wine and roasting chestnuts on bonfires. They also sing a traditional tune:
É dia de São Martinho. Comem-se castanhas; prova-se o vinho!
It is St Martin’s Day. We will eat chestnuts, we will taste the wine
While in Malta, children are given a little bag of goodies, which often contain an assortment of dried figs, nuts, tangerines and oranges.
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). In old days, nuts were used by the children in their games.
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.
In Italy, St. Martin is celebrated in many cities through festivals and popular fairs. The atmosphere in Venice is special, where children go around the streets of the city banging pots and pans to make a lot of noise, and asking to the sound of rhymes for some candies or money.
In the Venetian houses the traditional sweet pastry, with the shape of the saint on horseback, all covered with coloured icing, chocolate, sweets and chocolates, is a must. A real delicacy!
On the other hand, adults celebrate this day by opening the barrels for the first taste of the new wine, excellent with chestnuts. From this tradition derives the motto “a San Martino ogni mosto diventa vino!“, literally “For St. Martin’s day each must becomes wine!”
Categories: Ethnic traditions