St. Martin, a Saint that children love and adore

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Martin’s Day, often simply called Saint Martin, is the commemoration of Saint Martin of Tours. The Christian holiday is celebrated on November 11 every year.

Children honoring St. Martin by walking through the streets with colorful handcrafted illuminating Lanterns, singing songs like “Laterne, Laterne, Sonne Mond und Sterne” or “Ich geh mit meiner Laterne”

Saint Martin

In some evangelical regions of southern Germany, St. Martin brings gifts on Martin’s Day. Well-known lantern songs include “Laterne, Laterne, Ich geh mit meiner Laterne” which are used by Catholic and Protestant Christians alike. The Martinslied (song) “Sankt Martin, Sankt Martin”, on the other hand, is only used by Catholics.

There is often a Martin goose on Saint Martin, either actually in the form of a roasted Goose. In many places, especially in the church, the custom is widespread that parishioners receive Bread or Pastries (Sweet yeast rolls) to share among themselves in the spirit of Saint Martin.

2000 Children were at the St. Martin Parade in Bonn Nov. 11, 2022. See a one minute YouTube below:

The History

Saint Martin and Martin’s Day – is it a pagan festival in Christian clothing? Martin von Tours was born as Latin Martinus around 316/317 AD in Savaria, a Roman province and today Szombathely, Hungary. He died in Candes near Tours, France in Nov. 8, 397 with the ripe age of 81. He was buried in Tours on November 11, with a the great sympathy and love of the population.

Martin was the founder of Western monasticism as the third bishop of Tours. St. Martin is one of the most well-known Saints in the Catholic Church and the first to be accorded this dignity, not as a martyr, but as a confessor. He is also venerated as a saint in the Orthodox and Anglican Churches. From 334 AD, Martin was stationed as a cavalry soldier in the Imperial Guard in Amiens. Over the armor the guardsmen wore the chlamys, a white two-piece cloak lined with sheepskin at the top. In almost all artistic representations, however, he is depicted with a red officer’s coat (Latin: paludamentum).

One winter’s day, at the gates of Amiens, Martin met a poor, unclothed man. Martin was carrying nothing but his guns and military coat. In a merciful act, he divided his cloak with the sword and gave half to the poor.

It most old paintings, Martin is depicted either as a Roman soldier on horseback while parting his shoulder cloak, or as a bishop with the iconographic attributes of the wheel or geese.

Sankt Martin
St. Martin by Peeter Baltens 16th century

Martin, a Christianized Wotan figure?

What does the Catholic saint have to do with the old German God Wotan? If you search the internet, you will quickly find numerous entries from church organizations, dictionaries and parishes with Martin’s patronage, all of which indicate that the Saint is a Christianized Wotan figure. For example, the parish of St. Martin from Laberweinting writes on its website: “When the storm shakes the leafless trees in mid-November, the horrifying story of the local historian Josef Lang of St. Martinus begins, and the clouds chase before him, then Wotan, the old Germanic god, moves through the air with his wild army.

It is said the holy man is sitting on Wotan’s white horse and he is wearing Wotan’s cloak. But he is not the old king of the gods, who rides ghostly through the clouds, but the good-hearted soldier, who shares his cloak with the poor in Christian brotherly love. Martinus not only borrowed Wotan’s horse and cloak, but also his festival customs.

Saint Martin

From the Christian St. Martin, November 11th, through St. Nicholas on December 6th, to the Christian Christmas Eve and the Twelve Nights between the winter solstice and Epiphany, the pagan belief of the Wild Hunt, but above all the belief, stretches around the “Schimmelreiter” that symbolizes Wotan

St. Martin has the attributes of horse, cloak and beggar, which we also find in Wotan, who, draped in his blue cloak, not only rides his eight-footed horse Sleipnir, but who at times walks among mortals as a one-eyed wanderer.

November is “Blotmonath”

In a celebration of the harvest, the “Farmer’s Day” places food and drink in the foreground. This was certainly due to the fact that the big slaughter took place in November before winter, both among the Celts and among the Germans, because the entire herd population was usually not kept through the winter. The Germanic name for November is Blotmonath, probably because the Germans offered sacrifices to their main god Wotan (or Odin) in this month of blood.

The name was recorded by the Anglo-Saxon scholar Bede in his treatise De temporum ratione, stating: “Blod-monath is a month of fire sacrifices, for in this month the cattle to be slaughtered were dedicated to the gods.” The moon’s vernacular name, blood moon, gives us an additional clue in this direction.

Children visiting door at St. Martin's Day
St. Martin’s Day children visiting homes (per Wikimedia)

Martinsgans or Martin’s Goose

We also find the goose, an animal attributed to Saint Martin, at his side late. The earliest evidence of a relationship between the Saint and the Goose is only found in the “Annales Corbeienses”, after which Othelricus de Swalenberg gave Corvey Abbey a Silver Goose on his feast.

Martinsgans (Goose) with red cabbage and potatoes

Goose leg with fried potatoes and red cabbage

The Irish Legend

In Ireland, at St Peter’s, Athlone, an apparent sacrificial custom survived into the 19th century. Every household would kill some animal and spatter the house border or land border with its blood. The animal was sacrificed to St. Martin, who apparently took the place of an earlier deity. Misfortune would befall the family that did not. It is possible that this was transferred from the Celtic Samhain to the day of Martin.

According to a very interesting Irish legend, the saint himself was dismembered and eaten in the form of an ox. This brings interesting parallels to some creation stories in which a deity or a primordial being is dismembered (we are at the end of the year – beginning of the year!) as well as to Bacchus, the Roman Dionysus. Dionysus is a God of wine and fertility who was also dismembered and reassembled by the goddess Rhea by boiling his limbs in a cauldron.

Whipping a switch

Another fertility custom is that of whipping the switch. According to C.A. Miles, it is a birch branch that has had all its branches removed except for those at the top, then oak and juniper leaves added to it. The holder of the whip was seen as representing Saint Martin. This is a visible parallel to the handing over of the “Girt” by the village shepherd at the traditional Wolf release in the Bavarian Forest on Martini Day.

Sankt Martins zug

Martinszug Parade with homemade Lanterns

Martinsfeuer or Martin fire

The Martin fires are associated with the “summer burning” and Celto-Germanic harvest festivals. The lantern processions or torch parades go back to pre-Christian fire and light customs. The fires are supposed to drive away evil spirits. Young people and adults went through the fields to drive away the evil spirits and bring fertility and blessings for the coming year.

The Lanterns

The original lanterns were turnips, pumpkins, all came from what is today the USA. In Switzerland, this custom is still alive in its most traditional form with the “Räbäliechtli” parades.

St. Martin handcrafted lanterns

Today you see mostly colorful illuminating handcrafted Lanterns

St. Martin sweet yeast bread

Since the candlelight processions already indicate a blessing for the fertility of the fields next year, the loaves of bread or rolls are more likely to be linked to fertility.

Martinsweck Sweet yeast bread

“Martin loaves”, “Martins croissants”, “Merteswecken” or “Luther Brötchen”

“Martins Hörnchen” is a Sweet Yeast croissant (see recipe below) that are distributed to commemorate the charitable givings of Martins according to Christian interpretation

Alpine “Wild Figures” Perchten Run

Already on St. Martin’s Day, some “Wild Figures” of the folk custom appeared, which we encounter again and again in several Alpine customs such as the Perchten Run, or in the entourage of Saint Nicholas. Saint Martin and St. Martin’s Day also seem to be a Christianized version of a once pagan predecessor custom, which, as already mentioned above, is acknowledged by the Catholic Church. Also see Krampus Folklore custom

Alpine Perchten run
Alpine Perchten run, South Tyrol

Sweet yeast dough recipe for your Martin Croissants and Rolls below:

Recipe not found

Reference:

Jacob Grimm : Deutsche Mythologie, Band 1

Willhelm Mannhardt: Wald- und Feldkulte Band 1 und Band 2

Webseite der Pfarrgemeinde St. Martin; Laberweinting

Sönke Lorenz/ Barbara Scholkmann: Die Alemannen und das Christentum – Zeugnisse eines kulturellen Umbruchs

Manfred Becker-Huberti: Lexikon der Bräuche und Feste

Clement A. Miles: Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan

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