Around the beginning of the month, when I was holed up with the stomach flu and browsing the internet rather more than I should have been, I discovered that November 11th is a traditional Christian holiday called Martinmas, or St. Martin’s Day. It falls in between Michaelmas (on September 29, which I know nothing about but will have to plan for next year) and Christmas, and is part of the fall liturgical festival calendar. Apparently it was a rather important festival throughout much of Europe for centuries, as a combination of celebrating the harvest and celebrating St. Martin: we give thanks for the bounty with which we have been blessed, and remember that we are Christ’s ambassadors to bring light and warmth into the world for the good of the needy around us, as St. Martin did.
St. Martin of Tours was a young Roman soldier in the emperor’s bodyguard when he and his companions happened upon a beggar, clothed only in rags against the impending snow. While his companions ignored or mocked the man, Martin felt that he should do something, and not having excess with him, he cut his own cloak in half so the man could be warm. That night, he had a dream in which Jesus appeared wearing half of Martin’s cloak, telling the angels that as Martin had done for the beggar, so he had done for Jesus Himself. Martin went on to become a priest and eventually a bishop after finishing his service in the Roman army, and played a part in the establishment of orthodoxy in the days of the Arian heresy, while always continuing to live humbly and in service to the poor around him. This combination of compassion and truth is symbolized by the emphasis, at Martinmas, of warmth and light – both seasonally important as well as the weather begins to get colder and the days get shorter!
Some of the traditions associated the day include a clothing drive (to help the poor and homeless prepare against the coming of winter), a bonfire celebration, and a lantern walk (with songs, followed by goodie bags for the kids traditionally filled with fruits of the harvest such as nuts, dried fruits, and other special treats). We did all three of these this year in a very impromptu event with a couple other families we know, and while I was incredibly anxious about the whole thing, everyone told me it went well and that they enjoyed it, so I should probably stop feeling like it was a total let-down for everyone… after all, we had fellowship and food if nothing else, and we have a huge box of clothing and food to donate to our local clothes closet and food pantry. I wish I had gotten some pictures of the boys with their lanterns – they both successfully (and rather nonchalantly) carried mason jar lanterns with real candles inside of them for the walk, which greatly impressed me – but it was dark, and I needed to lead the walk, and my auto-focus was struggling. Maybe next year! In my efforts to remember the saints more and follow the rhythms of the liturgical year more closely, this was a special treat and easier to talk about with my kids than the death themes of Halloween and All Saints/All Souls days, so I think we’ll be trying to make it a tradition.
Have any of you celebrated Martinmas before? What are some of your favorite traditions surrounding the day?