festivals and traditions

From legend to tradition: the feast of St. Martin

Winter is approaching… Colourful leaves fall down from their branches, smoke rises up from chimneys, the light of the day gets shorter and shorter… But, despite of the cold, during these days, particularly on 11th November, our tables are laden with roasted flesh and chestnuts, quince jelly, mandarins and – of course – bottles of new good wine from our land.

It’s the Feast of St. Martin, also called St. Martin’s Summer because it corresponds to the period of November during which the temperature is quite mild, more gentle than that of the first cold days of the coming season. This phenomenon is linked to the change of season that causes some mutations in temperature (in the United States it’s known as the “Indian Summer”) or, more precisely, to the Anticyclone of Spain that, during this period of the year, spreads in all the European States,except in those of the north-eastern Europe.

Now… what about the legend that this feast refers to?

The legend tells that a Roman pagan soldier, Martin, that was born in ancient Pannonia (in the town of Sabaria) between 315 and 317 and who was studying to become a Christian, was coming back home protected from snow and cold by his warm wool cloak. His house was four days of journey far. While travelling, he met a poor old man having nothing to protect him from the chill of winter. So the kind soldier unsheathed his sword and divided his mantle into two parts, one for the poor man and the other for himself.

As a reward of Martin’s goodness, God made snow disappear and the ground dry, made the air become warmer and milder until Martin would arrive at home, i.e. the next three days and a half, on the day  that today we call “St. Martin’s Summer”.
At night, Martin dreamt of Jesus, covered with his cloak, saying to the angels: “Martin gave me this dress” and giving him back his mantle. When Martin woke up the day after, his cloak was whole again. When he left military life, he became a monk and later bishop of Tours. He died in Cades on 11th November 397.

About the weather in  these days, a Caribbean proverb says: “What you have bought you will have to wear” (from “National symbols of St. Martin”, House of Nehesi, 1996) that means that after the feast of St. Martin winter begins we have to cover ourselves with warm clothes.

This tradition of celebrating this particular day is widespread all over Europe.

In Sweden, Denmark and France people  eat a goose because of another legend that tells that Martin, that didn’t want to become a bishop, hid himself in a convent not to  be found. But the geese that were in the cloister started squawking because they didn’t know him, so he was found out and the Pope appointed him bishop. So they have this custom as a “punishment” for this animal for that episode. Someone also say that the eating of geese is linked to Celtic ancient beliefs, that considered them as sacred animals, symbols of the Divine messenger, that leads the souls of dead people in the afterlife.

In Switzerland people stuff the goose with apple slices , while in Bohemia they use the bones of this animal for divination: if they are white, winter will be short and mild, if they are dark, it will rain, snowy and be very cold. In Germany they use sagebrush, apples, chestnuts  glazed with honey, raisins to stuff the goose. Moreover, as a tradition, children make some colourful lanterns and, during a sort of procession called Laternenumzug, they sing songs and ask for candies and money.

In Italy this is the period in which we open the barrels of new wine and we roast chestnuts.

In Venice boys give to their lovers a cake in the shape of the Saint decorated with coloured glaze, sweets and chocolates.

And what about you? How  are you going to celebrate this feast?

One thought on “From legend to tradition: the feast of St. Martin

  1. Another feature of our tables is roasted meat! Perhaps this is a custom typical of Salento..for example, i “inaugurate” the fireplace in my house with delicious mixed grilled meat and we usually start to light the fire from then on.

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