San Martino, 11 November
St Martin leaves the life of chivalry
Fresco by Simone Martini, Lower church, Assisi
From here Martin returned to Gaul, where he received the priesthood from Bishop Hilary, who had returned from exile in 360. A year later he founded at Ligugé (12 kilometers from Poitiers) a community of ascetics, which is considered the first monastery in Europe. In 371 he was elected bishop of Tours. For some time, however, he stayed in another monastery he had founded four km from the city, called Marmoutier.
From here he started his mission, which was to last over 20 years, to Christianize the countryside, where Christ was still "the God worshiped in the city." He did not have the culture of Hilary, and still retained some of his soldier's rough character, as when he knocked down buildings and symbols of pagan cults. But his evangelization was successful because he sided with the poor against the ruthless Roman tax system, promoting justice between weak and powerful. With him, the rural population raised their heads, and this explains the enormous popularity he had in life and later growing veneration.
He died in Candes (Indre-et-Loire, France), on November 8th 397, around midnight on a Sunday. The inhabitants of Poitiers and those of Tours quarreled over his body, and the latter, at night, took him to their city by water, along the rivers Vienne and Loire. His feast is celebrated on the anniversary of the burial at Tours, and the town of Candes changed its name to Candes-Saint-Martin.
The legend of Saint Martin's mantle
Martin's companions were urging their horses with whips, but Martin was not whipping his own because he did not want the horse to fall: the animal had served him well for so long. He reached the gate of the city, but the horse refused to go through, stopping suddenly outside the walls. There was a beggar, sitting against the wall, in the freezing cold. Martin dismounted and with his sword cut his cloak in two, without hesitation, offering half to the beggar. Then he went back to his horse and entered the city.
When later Martin met his companions in a tavern, they mocked him for what he had done. But in the night, while he was sleeping, a shining figure appeared behind him wearing his cloak, and said, "It's me you helped." It was Jesus. Martin never forgot this experience and decided that, from then on, he would serve a more powerful Lord than the Emperor.
Sometimes to the legend another episode is added: after Martin donated half of his mantle, the sun came out, temperature got warmer, for what came to be known in the Italian language as the "estate di San Martino" (Indian summer in English.
St Martin and the Beggar, circa 1322-1326
Lower church, Assisi
St Martin in Art
Celebrations for St. Martin's
For this reason, in the feast of St. Martin many pagan customs converge, as happened with other figures of saints; the customs, banquets, festivities and rites of the Celts were transferred on his figure, the most suitable to Christianize all of them. And St. Martin became very popular, especially among the peasant communities of Celtic origin.
In Southern Italy many originally pagan celebrations are held for St. Martin. The new wine is tasted, chestnuts are eaten, the goose is cooked, and cuckolds are celebrated with processions, musical bands, and the coronation of the year's cuckold.
The Martinmas tradition
In Steiner's nursery schools, which give great importance to the rediscovery of traditional festivals, St. Martin's Day is celebrated with great intensity. There is a lot of manual work and creativity beforehand, with glue, tissue paper, cardboard, dry carved turnips.
The flame of the lantern is protected inside, suggesting the idea to have a warm inner light always on, like St. Martin, who shared his cloak with a beggar. The Lantern Festival starts in the afternoon, with children gathering in a room for a puppet show or the story of the little girl in The star-money by the Grimm brothers.
One by one, the lanterns are lit, in a circle at the center of the room, with no other lights on. Then the parents walk together with their children, in a long procession of lanterns, led by a lamplighter wrapped in a thick woolen cloak, carrying an old barn lantern. All come together to sing, along a road with no traffic, or a path among the fields or through the woods. On the way back to the school, around a tree in the yard, the lamplighter goes from one child to another, shaking hands with everyone, then distributes the sweets of St. Martin - cookies in the shape of the sun, moon and stars - to the children. Eventually they sing all together again, while parents make with their arms a bridge, under which the children pass with their lanterns, to finally return home.
The most common are the lanterns in black cardboard with carvings of various shapes. Behind the empty parts thus created, sheets of transparent paper of one or more colors are applied. The candle holder is made with a spool of thread cut in half which is then pasted onto the base of the lantern. The hole is first expanded with a small rasp or file. The candle is then stopped with dripping wax. Also, the long side of an old tin can be cut, 4 cm wide and 7 cm long, and then bended to form a tube and inserted at the base of the lantern.
St. Martin's goose
As in all religious, and especially Christian celebrations, St. Martin's Day coincided with a pagan festival. At the beginning of November, peasants had to eliminate those cattle that would have been only a burden during the winter, and therefore many geese were sacrificed. The custom may also be linked to the ancient belief in the "spirits of vegetation", imagined in the form of a rooster, pork or goose, a spirit of the wheat that was to die at the end of the summer and peasant's year. Killing the goose was like leaving the summer.
Whatever the origin, it became customary for St. Martin to invite friends and acquaintances to "eat the goose." And proofs of this mystic connection are the belief in the healing power of goose fat, and the "lucky bone": if two people try to break the small V-shaped ossicle in the goose chest making a wish, the one who remains with the larger piece will have his wish fulfilled. Even the color of this bone takes a deeper meaning: if it is white and faded, winter will be cold and meager, if instead it has a beautiful red color, winter will not be without supplies.
A celebration of cuckolds
During this pagan festival betrayed husbands were made the object of ridicule and a simulated hunting was organized, in which they had to play the role of deer, an animal with rich, branched horns.
This tradition may also derive from an archaic Roman legend of the adulterous loves of Mars (of which the name Martin is a diminutive form), the war god, with Venus, goddess of love and beauty; the couple was surprised by the ugly, crippled Vulcan, the god of fire and husband to Venus. Vulcan locked up the adulterers in an iron cage to show them to the gods and obtain their sympathy for the wrongs he had suffered.
But the Olympians laughed and mocked him, so Vulcan's disappointment was even more bitter, and perhaps from this episode comes a colourful expression of the Italian language "cornuto e mazziato" (=horned, and beaten"), and the common insult of "cornuto" addressed to the hateful (male) figures, as referees in soccer matches. In Southern Italy it is a serious personal offence, and is often accompanied by the sign of the horns made with a hand. The Italian expression "portare le corna" or "essere cornuti", indicates implicitly that the betrayed husband is often unaware, or the last to learn about the adultery, since the horns are seen by others but not by the one who has them on his head. A common saying is also "sbatterci le corna" (crush one's horns against something) which means that only when one is hurt he realizes his mistake.
St. Martin's recipes
In Umbria a cheese bread is prepared, the Pan caciato of San Martino, with raisins, walnuts and pecorino cheese, and this bread may be accompanied with the "vin novello" (new wine).
Italian Proverbs for San Martino
- L'estate di San Martino dura tre giorni e un pocolino [St. Martin's summer lasts three days and a little bit.]
- A San Martino il grano va al mulino [At St. Martin's grain goes to the mill.]
- A San Martino ogni mosto è vino [At St. Martin each must is wine.]
- A San Martino si lascia l'acqua e si beve il vino [At St. Martin's you leave water and drink wine.]
- A San Martino si sposa la figlia del contadino [At St. Martin's the farmer's daughter gets married.]
- Chi vuol far buon vino zappi e poti a San Martino [Who wants good wine should dig and prune at St. Martin's.]
- Da San Martino l'inverno è in cammino [From St. Martin's winter is on the way.]
- Oca, castagne e vino per festeggiare San Martino [Goose, chestnuts and wine to celebrate St. Martin.]
- Per San Martino cadon le foglie e si spilla il vino [By St. Martin's leaves fall and wine is tapped.]
- Per San Martino castagne e buon vino [For St. Martin's chestnuts and good wine.]
- Per San Martino nespole e vino [For St. Martin's loquats and wine.]
- Per San Martino si buca la botte del miglior vino [For St. Martin's he barrel of the best wine is tapped.]
- Per San Martino si mangia la castagna e si beve il buon vino [For St. Martin's we eat chestnuts and drink good wine.]
- Per San Martino si spilla il botticino [For St. Martin's the small barrel is tapped.]