A canonized saint in the Roman Catholic Church, Martin of Tours is revered across large swaths of Europe–including Protestant-majority northern European countries. Celebrations of his Feast Day on November 11 speak to a devotional cult that incorporates many curiously Pagan elements of great antiquity, indelibly ensconcing him in a meta folk consciousness channeled through traditions that aren’t about to die out any time soon. From Sweden to Spain, from England to the Dalmatian coast of Croatia, St. Martin’s Day/Martinmas/Martinstag/Sint-Maarten gives rise to seasonal celebrations that commemorate blood sacrifice and feasting (cattle, pork, and especially geese), the building of sacred fires (both bonfires and more controllable lantern-lit processions led by children), uncorking the season’s first wines, welcoming the start of winter, and singing in the streets for Halloween-like treats.
A Scanty Hagiography
Unlike some folk saints, Martin was a historical personage. He was born the son of Pagan Roman parents in 316 C.E. in the province of Pannonia, modern-day Hungary. His father served as a tribute in the Roman army under Emperor Julian, and thus it would have been expected for Martin to follow suit. At the age of 18, while dispatched to Gaul, Martin underwent his legendary “conversion experience” shortly after encountering a freezing beggar outside the gates of the city now known as Amiens, France. Martin took pity on the beggar and used his sword to cut his own red soldier’s cloak in two, offering one half to keep the poor man warm. That night, Martin dreamt that the beggar he encountered at the city gates was Christ himself, who announced before a host of angels, “Martin, the unbaptized soldier of Rome, has clothed me.”He was determined to become a Christian from that moment forward. When he was 20, Martin fought in a battle that repelled a Teutonic invasion. Brought before Emperor Julian to claim his reward, Martin refused his bonus and was said to have declared: “Up to now, I have served you as a soldier; allow me henceforth to serve Christ. Give the bounty to these others who are going out to battle. I am a soldier of Christ and it is not lawful for me to fight.” And thus Martin of Tours has become, among other things, the patron saint not just of soldiers but of conscientious objectors, too.
He ultimately was released from the army and pursued being a disciple of Hilaire/Hilary, Bishop of Poitiers. They formed a monastic community and word got around of Martin’s ecclesiastical devotion and spirit of service. Martin was said to have dedicated himself to converting–through peaceful means–adherents of the so-called Arian heresy, which denied the equal nature of the Persons in the Christian Trinity (essentially denouncing the divinity of Christ). He was also ordained an exorcist and went about the countryside expelling spirits, trying to dissuade the polytheistic Gauls from their ancestral practices. But one instance at least turned into an epic fail and a victory for the Gauls, according to Celtic studies scholar W.Y. Evans-Wentz:
Saint Martin…tried to destroy a sacred pine tree in the diocese of Tours by telling the people there was nothing divine in it. The people agreed to let it be cut down on the condition that the saint should receive its great trunk on his head as it fell; and the tree was not cut down (The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, 435).
Martin was ordained Bishop of Tours in 371 C.E.–against his will, supposedly–and he died in the year 397.
A War-Like God of Abundance? Mars Silvanus, Anyone?
In folk Catholicism, Saint Martin is thought to have brought different varieties of grapes for wine-growing throughout central and southern Europe, and thus he is also the patron saint of vintners. Throughout central Europe and several Mediterranean countries, from Saint Martin’s own native Hungary to France, from Spain and Italy to Croatia, November 11 is a day set aside for ending the agrarian year and partaking of the abundant wine harvest. In Croatia, the Feast Day of Martinje features a ceremonial blessing of wine by a figure in folk costume wearing a bishop’s mitre and staff. Flanked by musicians, the “bishop” performs a ceremony of “baptism,” declaring the wine mature and properly fit for consumption.
The food most associated with feasting on St. Martin’s Day throughout continental Europe is roasted goose. (In Ireland and the U.K., beef and pork are the main staples–for reasons that will be elaborated upon shortly.) In folk belief, Martin, as mentioned above, was elected Bishop of Tours against his will. In fact, he was so unwilling to be appointed to the job, the story goes, that he supposedly ran away from his ecclesiastical brethren and tried to hide in a farmer’s goose pen somewhere in Tours. The fervent honking of the geese betrayed his whereabouts, and he was dragged off to the cathedral and elevated to the status of bishop. It’s an amusing story, certainly, but the association with geese also bears a connotation of Romano-Gaulish Paganism, one that largely goes unexplored or gets written off as an association dating to a much later time: the Middle Ages, when serfs dismissed from toiling their masters’ lands at the onset of winter received their wages in the form of geese to feed their families.
What if the cult of Saint Martin the former soldier bears traces of a much older devotional cult to the Roman god Mars? The end of the farming season in ancient Rome was commemorated with sacrifices of geese, a bird sacred to Mars. (If you question this large, seemingly clumsy bird’s association with the God of War, then you’ve never been chased, as I have, by a belligerent male goose upon trespassing too closely to his mate’s nest!) Archaeological excavations of graves dating from Roman-occupied Gaul have revealed that geese were buried with warriors.
Culling the Herds, Welcoming Winter: St. Martin’s Day, Samhain of the Celts, and the Anglo-Saxon Blódmonath
The Feast of Saint Martin, falling as it does at this time in November, has clearly inherited many of the aspects associated with the Celtic Samhain, “Summer’s End,” which was and is a great liminal time that allows the Otherworld/Underworld and its denizens to overlap with the world of the living. Even in contemporary Roman Catholicism, Saint Martin’s Day is seen as a culmination of the tide of ancestral remembrance begun on All Hallow’s Eve, or Hallowe’en. It’s the last day of a Carnivale-like atmosphere that has the living and the dead partying together by the bonfire’s glow, for on the following day, November 12, solemn 40-day fasting for the Advent season begins in earnest for devout Catholics.
The overlap between Halloween and St. Martin’s Day is illustrated, in Teutonic countries, by the custom of children bearing lanterns and singing in the streets. They are rewarded with sweet treats, not unlike trick-or-treating children in the U.S. on Halloween night. Furthermore, Halloween imagery from the U.S. is spilling over into these processionals: for the lanterns themselves, many now are actual carved Jack-o’-lanterns or are paper lanterns meant to look like Halloween Jack-o’-lanterns. This just goes to show how folk religions are always evolving, incorporating related symbols and traditions–even from far-away lands–to meet the needs of the believers.
Historically, we know that in the year 843, Pope Gregory the IV officially declared the date of All Saints’ Day–the Feast of All Hallows–to be November 1, switching it from its traditionally assigned date of May 13. This was a move to counteract the Pagan practices of Samhain. (And even the May 13 assignation of All Saints’ Day was a move on the early Church’s part to Christianize a Roman Pagan festival of appeasing the spirits of the wandering dead: the Lemuralia!) In the pastoral societies of the Celts and also of the Teutonic tribes that would invade and ultimately colonize Great Britain, the beginning of winter was a time of animal sacrifice to express thanks to Holy Powers for abundance but also the time to cull the herds of livestock that could not be fed through the lean months ahead. This time gave rise to a name for the month of November in Anglo-Saxon: blódmonath, the time of offering blót (blood sacrifice).
The first day of the first month of the old Germanic calendar of sixty-day months and the date of one of the great pagan festivals was in early November and perhaps indeed on November 11th. In Christian times this November feast perhaps accounts for the elevation in importance of the Feast of Saint Martin (November 11th), for Anglo-Saxon law makes clear that a Christian translation took over for this festival many of the elements of its pagan counterpart. The cult of this saint in England, accommodated to the pagan Germanic new year, was of Anglo-Saxon and not Celtic origin. … The Anglo-Saxon cult of this Merovingian saint was probably stimulated by the accommodation to it of the early November blódmonath celebration. And the festive fires of paganism, overcoming the dread of Winter, still burn in England on Guy Fawkes Night, November 5th (Chaney 58).
Clearly, the blódmonath tradition continues in a subdued form in modern St. Martin’s Day feasts of goose, pork, and beef. It might even continue, at a subsconscious level, in our solemn commemorations of Armistice Day in Europe and Veterans’ Day in the U.S., where the contemplation of the sacrifices of others takes root in our collective consciousness.
If the example of the historical Saint Martin teaches us anything, it’s a legacy of compassion for the hungry and the homeless, compassion for the disenfranchised, for the vulnerable and voiceless. Share your kindness. You never know Who you may be helping. After all, tales of Holy Powers roaming about the earth, forlorn and distressed, in human guise, far predate anything found in the Bible.
Often go the Gods in the stranger’s guise.
Chaney, William A. The Cult of Kingship in Anglo-Saxon England: The Transition from Paganism to Christianity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970.
Evans-Wentz, W.Y. The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries. London: H. Froude, 1911. Available at: http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt.ffcctp.htm. Accessed November 7, 2016.