The history of Saint Martin’s Day
Saint Martin’s Day is here! Traditionally, that means: children dressing up, crafting beautiful paper lanterns, going door-to-door singing “St Martin ritt durch Schnee und Wind” and getting sweets, fruit and other treats in return.
On November 11, streets in Germany are illuminated by the many lanterns carried by children in the annual Saint Martin’s Day processions. Bonfires are lit in town squares across the country and hungry celebrators tuck into food like goose, red cabbage and dumplings.
The luminous processions are to celebrate the life of Saint Martin and to symbolise the holy light that keeps the darkness at bay. These celebrations reflect the hope and faith that Saint Martin inspired through his actions. However, while the celebrations endure, the story and life of Saint Martin has slipped into obscurity.
So, just in time for Saint Martin’s Day we are bringing you the history behind Saint Martin of Tours, who he was, what he did and why he is still celebrated today.
The life of Saint Martin
Throughout his life as a soldier, monk and bishop, Saint Martin was associated with miracles and strange occurrences that have influenced the way Saint Martin’s Day is celebrated today.
Life as a soldier
Martin was born in 316 or 334 AD in Savaria in the region of Pannonia (in modern-day Hungary) but grew up in Northern Italy. He converted to Christianity at the age of 10, which was uncommon at the time as it was a minority faith, having only just been given the status of an official religion in the Roman Empire by the Emperor Constantine.
As the son of a veteran officer, Martin was obliged to join an auxiliary cavalry unit. He continued to serve in the army until one peculiar episode. Just before a battle at Borbetomagus in Worms, Martin suddenly decided that his change of allegiance from the Roman Emperor, Julian the Apostate, to Christ meant that he could no longer continue to fight and receive his salary as a soldier.
He was arrested for cowardice and thrown in prison; Martin then volunteered to fight unarmed in the front line, knowing that God would protect him. Before his superiors could agree, the opposing forces sued for peace and Martin was released.
The incident for which he is most remembered also occurred when Saint Martin was a soldier. He was approaching the city of Amiens, in Gaul (France), where he met a naked beggar. Martin cut his riding cloak in half and offered half of it to the beggar. That night Martin had a vision of Jesus, clutching his cloak and telling angels that Martin had given it to him. In some versions, he awoke to find his cloak whole again. The experience was enough to cement his belief in the Christian faith and he was baptised shortly after.
Life as a monk
After leaving the army, Martin became a follower of Trinitarian Christianity (the belief in the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are three distinct entities but are spiritually one force). After a disagreement over Christian beliefs in the Imperial Court, he was exiled from Illyria and went to live on an island as a hermit. One story tells of how Martin fell ill from eating a hellebore plant; on the verge of death he prayed and was miraculously cured.
He eventually returned to Gaul and established a hermitage there, which attracted many Christian converts. The site of his monastery developed into the Ligugè Abbey, the oldest known monastery in Europe. Martin continued to travel and preach throughout Gaul, and there are many stories of him performing miracles on his travels - on one occasion he resurrected three men from the dead.
Life as a Bishop
In 371 AD, Martin was tricked into visiting city of Tours. He was summoned to help the sick but, on his arrival, he was taken to the church and consecrated as a bishop. According to the stories, Martin tried to run from this position and hid in a barn full of geese, but their quacking gave him away. This is why goose is commonly eaten of Saint Martin’s Day.
Other stories include an incident where pagan worshippers agreed to cut down a sacred fir tree if Martin would stand in front of it. Martin stood in front of the tree but, incredibly, it missed him as it fell. He was also well known for freeing prisoners, so much so that even when the Emperor heard he was visiting, he refused to meet Martin as he knew he would request the release of prisoners!
Saint Martin has become a model for leading a good Christian life throughout history. He was a soldier, who gave what he could to the poor, undertook military service, followed orders diligently and respected secular authority. He has become a paragon of justice, fairness and piety.
Saint Martin died on November 8, 397, but was buried on November 11. This is why Saint Martin’s day is celebrated on November 11 today. He was venerated during the late 5th century. The Latin poet, Ventantius Fortunatus, a saint himself, famously declared, “Wherever Christ is known, Martin is honoured.”
Saint Martin was buried at his hermitage at Candes-St-Martin in France. However the building was way too small to accommodate the huge crowd of pilgrims it was attracting. So when Bishop Perpetuus of Tours took office in 461, he built a basilica for Saint Martin and buried his sarcophagus behind the altar.
Saint Martin’s Day in Germany
Saint Martin’s Day originated in France and has spread all over Europe. It not only celebrates the life of Saint Martin but also the end of the agrarian year and the end of harvest. The Advent season is derived from a 6th century Christian tradition, whereby worshippers would fast from Saint Martin’s Day until January 6, the day of the Feast of the Three Wise Men.
Saint Martin’s day is often referred to as Martinmas, the day where Saint Martin is honoured with a mass. As the mass coincides with the end of harvest, traditionally fresh wine would have just been produced and farm animals slaughtered in accordance with winter preparations. This is why Saint Martin’s day is celebrated with feasts and bonfires.
In Germany bonfires are lit on Saint Martin’s eve and feasts take place. A traditional dish is a roast pig, shared amongst neighbours. Processions take place in the street, usually starting at a church and making their way to a public square where a bonfire is lit. The procession is usually fronted by a man, dressed as Saint Martin on horseback, followed by children and parents carrying paper lanterns lit by candles.
Probably inspired by the story of Saint Martin hiding in a barn full of geese, roasted goose or Martinsgans is served in the evening, along with other traditional foods: red cabbage, dumplings and Martinshörnchen, a pastry that is supposed to represent the hooves of Saint Martin’s horse and his mantle.