Happy Feast of St Martin!

11th November 2010
Long before the 11th November became associated with the fallen heroes, it was (and still is) celebrated as the Feast Day of St Martin (Martinmass) throughout much of Europe. It was an important part of the Church calendar in medieval times. And also the beginning of Winter in the agricultural calendar.

So who was St Martin, what did he do and how might we celebrate him?
outdoor festival with lanterns

St Martin history

St. Martin of Tours lived in the 4th century AD. He was part of the Roman army in occupied Gaul (France). One day, on horseback, he came upon a naked and starving man outside the city gates. The man was begging for alms. Moved by compassion Martin tore his red cloak in two with his sword and gave half to the beggar to keep him warm. In his dreams that night, Martin had a vision in which he saw the figure of Jesus clothed in the half of the woollen cloak he had presented to the beggar, all surrounded by angels. From there on, he devoted his life to the service of Christianity.

I like this story. St Martin was a soldier who made a sacrifice. So he chimes well with our modern Armistice (red poppy) Day. I also like it because it tells us that we do not necessarily have to belong to an organised Church to do good works. And that our deeds of kindness might in a sense still be acknowledged in some sense even though they are not done in the name of any organised religious doctrine. Many religions teach us this, of course - ie the Buddhist or Hindu concept of karma.

In time, St Martin became the patron saint of beggars, and also of vintners, equestrians, soldiers, tailors, innkeepers and even alcoholics. All these may have been, in part, because his day coincides with the feasting and celebrations associated with the harvest.

Celebrations today

Those who celebrate the feast of St Martin, do so to mark the beginning of Winter, and they mark it by wandering through the streets with lanterns, singing songs. Also, a bit like our modern trick or treat, it might have children knocking on doors for gifts. Feasting itself often includes a goose, but also sometimes a wild boar. And, as we have seen, because it happily coincides with that time of the year when the vintage is ready in the wine-growing areas of Europe, a good amount of wine may be consumed, too. Sounds like a lot of fun.
young woman holding paper lantern, illuminated, smiling, at feast of St Martin
So when the poppies have been put aside and we have, quite rightly, finished remembering those who made the ultimate sacrifice on the battle field, perhaps we can also raise a glass to the kindness and charity of St Martin. I think our heroes would not object one bit if we did. Let us remember them also and celebrate their great selflessness, as well.
classic design, London church exterior
The Church of St Martins in the Fields, London.
And finally. A little bit of English weather lore ...
If ducks do slide at Martinmas
At Christmas they will swim;
If ducks do swim at Martinmas
At Christmas they will slide.
Authored by Robert Stephen Parry

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