San Martino, 11 November

On a freezing night a Roman soldier named Martin, according to a legend, cut his cloak in two and donated half to a beggar, thus becoming the symbol of Christian charity, of the idea of solidarity, symbolized in sharing with unlucky creatures what we have.

Popularity of St. Martin

St Martin Statue in Poland
A protector of the poor and patron saint of soldiers, he became one of the most beautiful embodyments of a true Christian spirit, and one among the most beloved saints in Europe: in France alone, over 4000 churches are dedicated to him and his name was given to thousands of towns and villages; the same happened in Italy, in other parts of Europe and the Americas.


Martin was born in Szombathely, Pannonia (today Hungary), in a pagan family, around 316-317 AD. The son of a Roman army officer, he enlisted very young in the imperial cavalry, serving in Gaul. It is at this time that on a freezing night Martin on horseback, with his sword cut through his military cloak, donating half to a beggar. After leaving the army in 356, already baptized perhaps at Amiens, he joined at Poitiers the learned Bishop Hilary who ordained him as an exorcist (a first step toward priesthood.)
St Martin leaves the army
St Martin leaves the life of chivalry
Fresco by Simone Martini, Lower church, Assisi
Because of his stand against Arianism, which had the support of the Court, Bishop Hilary was exiled to Phrygia (Asia Minor), and it is hard to follow the whereabouts of Martin. He probably made a trip to Pannonia, and about 356 also visited Milan. Later he lived in solitude on Gallinaria, a rocky island opposite Albenga (Liguria), already a shelter of Christians in the time of persecution.

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

A company of knights in the service of the Roman Emperor was riding through the roads of France, in the direction of Amiens, coming from Italy to relieve the guard. As they were riding, it began to rain, and it was so cold that the rain froze and became ice, making the roads slippery.

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
St Martin and the Beggar, circa 1322-1326
Lower church, Assisi

The Martinmas tradition

This originally German tradition has taken root in many areas, especially in Northern Italy. In northern Europe St. Martin's Day is celebrated with a procession called Laternenumzug. Weeks before, children begin to prepare their paper lanterns for the procession. In the afternoon of 11 November, when it starts getting dark, children with their parents lit their lanterns hanging at the end of branches and move in a parade. Often at the head of the procession there is a "St. Martin" on horseback, wrapped in his cloak and ready to cut it in half to share it with a poor beggar. At the end of the procession stories of the legend of St. Martin are read, traditional songs are performed and the fire of St. Martin is lit. Finally, all participants may receive from St Martin a "pretzel", a typical salted cake.

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.

St Martin in Art

Episodes of the life of St. Martin were the object of innumerable works of art, as the cycle of frescoes in Assisi, in the Lower Basilica, by Simone Martini; a painting by El Greco, ca. 1597-99 (National Gallery of Art, Washington); the magnificent stained glass panel in Wettingen Abbey (Kloster Wettingen) in the Swiss canton of Aargau; equestrian statues as the majestic Monument to Saint Martin of Tours in Odolanów, Poland. In Italy there is also a much beloved poem dedicated to St. Martin's Day: San Martino by Giosuè Carducci.

Celebrations for St. Martin's

In most locations the feast of St. Martin, Bishop of Tours, takes place on November 11. The feast originated in France, when the area was still under the influence of the pagan Celts, who celebrated the beginning of the new year ("Samuin") with a thanksgiving festival that began on 1 November and lasted 10 days, in honor of the Germanic god Wotan.

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.

Martinmas lanterns

The easiest lantern is made with parchment, the size of 18x42 cm, divided into four identical rectangles. The top and bottom of these rectangles are folded back on themselves to the thickness of 1 cm to make the base and the lid of the lantern. The base must always be provided with a hole to let the air in, otherwise the light will falter. The lantern is then decorated with green or dead leaves.

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

There is also another legend connected to St. Martin, dated a few years after the mantle episode, when as a Roman soldier converted to Christianity he had already taken his vows and was known for his charity to the people. It is said that he did not want to become a bishop, and despite the Pope's order, he escaped from the convent at night and took shelter in a farmyard full of geese, while a group of people were desperately looking for him making light with lanterns. As in a famous episode in ancient Roman history, the geese made deafening noise and pointed exactly to the place where Martin was hidden.

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

Somehow, in Italy St. Martin's Day ended up becoming also the festival of betrayed husbands; many jokingly wish their friends a "happy San Martin". The origin of this custom is actually not clear. Perhaps because on this day cattle fairs took place in many locations, and cattle included mostly animals "equipped with horns." Or possibly because in ancient times in November a dozen days of unbridled pagan festival, almost a Carnival, were celebrated, during which adulterous liaisons often occurred.

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 the area of Venice there is a tradition to prepare a cake in Pâte sablée (a French pastry) in the form of a St. Martin on horseback, and decorate it with colored confetti, chocolate cream in the base (for the newly tilled soil) candied fruit for the mantle. With the cuttings left from this dough then cookies are made in the form of stars, suns and half moons.

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.]