St. Martin, born in AD 316, was a kind and humble member of the Roman guard who became a Christian saint. He built monasteries at Ligugè and Mamontier, and served as the bishop of Tours (he is buried in the cathedral there).
So goes the legend, on a dismal 11th of November Martin was riding his horse in the rain and cold when he met an old man struggling against the elements. Martin used his sword to cut his cloak in half, and he gave half to the old man. Shorty afterwards, the clouds parted and the sun came up, warming the day. That night Jesus came to him in a dream and thanked him for his kindness. Since then, warm days in November have been referred to as the summer of St. Martin.
In remembrance of St. Martin, the Venetians hold a feast day on 11th November. In olden days the feast involved a procession that wound up at the Church of St. Martin in the Castello district. But today all that remains of that procession is the children’s part. Children run through the streets of the city, bashing on pots and pans with wooden spoons and singing. Basically, the cacophony involves a threat to continue unless onlookers cough up a reward, like coins or sweets. The ethos is similar to that of the ‘trick or treat’ at Halloween. It’s a very noisy, jubilant event – just what the city needs given that 11th November is, of course, also Remembrance Day when people come together to remember sadly those who fell in the First World War.
There are also decorations in honour of the saint, and cakes depicting him on horseback. Bakery windows are crammed full of delicious looking offerings (take a look at this picture), or you can make your own at home (see this wonderful recipe to try the cake yourself: http://www.veniceconnected.com/content/desserts). I can just imagine my characters in my new novel The Echoes of Love, Paolo and Venetia, partaking of a cake or two!
Interestingly, the Venetians have a custom that you don’t open new wine until St. Martin’s Day. So no doubt it is not only the children who very much enjoy this feast day…
St. Martin is not only remembered in Venice, however – he’s an important and noted saint across Europe, and St. Martin’s Day carries weight outside the Italian city. For example:
- Most of Western Europe, from the late 4th century until the Middle Ages, would fast from the day after St. Martin’s Day for 40 days – the Quadragesima Sancti Martini (the forty days of St. Martin) – in spiritual preparation for Christmas. You can imagine, then, how much those fasters feasted on the saint’s day itself!
- Children in the Netherlands, and areas of Germany and Austria still participate in paper lantern processions.
- In Portugal, the saint’s day is celebrated across the country by families coming together to eat roasted chestnuts and drink wine.
Other interesting St. Martin facts:
- St. Martin-in-the-Fields at Trafalgar Square, London, and St. Martin’s Cathedral in Ypres are dedicated to him, as is St. Martin’s Church in Kaiserslautern, Germany.
- St. Martin is the patron saint of many places, including Buenos Aires and France.
- He was influential in spreading wine-making though parts of France.
- Martin Luther was named after St. Martin.
To find out more about the saint, take a look at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_of_Tours.