Friday, November 12, 2010


I have not written about Martinmas before, though it is associated with the cross quarter day I call Halloween. Here are previous posts about Halloween:

Halloween 2008: When the Veil Between the Worlds is Thin

Halloween 2009: What Do You Really Want to Be?

Halloween 2010: Doggy Heaven

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It is the day of Martilmasse,

Cuppes of ale should freelie passe;
What though Wynter has begunne
To push downe the Summer sunne,
To our fire we can betake,
And enjoye the crackling brake,
Never heedinge Wynter's face
On the day of Martilmasse.

Martinmas is another one of those fantastic holidays that most Americans either have never heard of, or only heard of through Waldorf schools. In both European countries like the Netherlands and Germany as well as in Waldorf schools around the world Martinmas is celebrated by retelling the story of St. Martin of Tours and by holding evening lantern walks. Last year I felt the deep calling of the Michaelmas celebration and this year I am feeling the same way about Martinmas. The more I read and think about it, the more beautiful and meaningful it is.

The young man who was to become St. Martin was born in about 317 A.D. in what is today Hungary and grew up the son of a Roman cavalry man in the area around Lombardy in Northwestern Italy. He became a Christian as a young man after Constantine made it the state religion but before it became popular in the military society Martin was a part of. Though he became a founder of monasteries and famous for exorcising demons the story most associated with St. Martin is the episode of the beggar and the cloak.

painting by Gustave Moreau, circa 1882

The story is told in many ways by many authors but the main elements are always the same. On a cold winter night St. Martin rode into the walled city of Ameins in northern France, and passed by a beggar huddling in the cold. Martin, having nothing else to give the man, took off his own scarlet cloak, cut it in two with his sword and gave half to the beggar. That night Martin was awoken by a vision of Christ proclaiming, "Here is Martin, the Roman soldier who is not baptized; he has clad me".

Rudolf Steiner, in a lecture on Easter, mentions that the Festivals of Christmas, Easter, St. Johns Day and Michaelmas fall a number of days after the point of the solar calendar they are aligned with. He says this is because the spiritual nature of the season comes to it's peak a few days after the earthly peak. For instance, solstices usually fall on the 21st or 22nd of December and June but Christmas is Dec 25th and St. Johns Day is the 24th of June. Martinmas, the feast day of St. Martin of Tours, falls on November 11th just a few days after the solar Festival of Halloween at the very end of October. Martinmas is associated with this ancient festival date and has been celebrated in similar ways throughout European history.

The holidays of All Saints and All Souls Day are the christian calendar equivalent of the part of Samhain or Halloween dealing with our Beloved Dead in the other world while St. Martin's Day is associated with another part of the season - preparing for winter. We prepare for winter by kindling and protecting our inner flame, sharing that flame with others and also protecting others with gifts of food and clothing.

In Britain there are many folk traditions relating to Martinmas, mostly relating to the harvest of animals and preparing for winter. During medieval times Martinmas was when herds were thinned before the winter, rents were paid and hiring fairs would be held for servants and workers who wished to change their employers. In some parts of Europe a goose was the proper meat for a Martinmas feast but in England beef was the centerpiece of the feast. Wilson's Almanac book of days for November 11 has many more interesting stories about ancient traditions in Europe and Britain relating to Martinmas, including many poems and sayings. Besides the old English ballad excerpted above my favorite is this piece of weather augury:

Ice before Martinmas,
Enough to bear a duck.
The rest of winter,
Is sure to be but muck!

The Martinmas lantern walk celebrated by Waldorf schools as well as families in the Netherlands, Germany and other parts of Europe is the visible ritual signifying our kind ling and protecting of our inner light. This light was sparked at
Michaelmas time and has grown, hand in hand with our courage, into the light of love and faith Martin showed sharing his cloak with the beggar. We protect our little flame in a beautiful lantern and parade it around, singing songs with our brothers, sisters and neighbors. As the outer light of the sun wanes during these days of late autumn and early winter we take pains to protect our inner light so it can grow.

photo by Rounien & Rjabinnik
How are you nurturing your inner light in these darkening days? How are you sharing your light and helping to kindle and protect the lights of others during this season? What about the story of St. Martin of Tours speaks to you? Is there any part of it, or of other ancient traditions that do not speak to you? Have you ever made a lantern to show off your light? Will the ducks of Martinmas be wading in the muck by Christmas where you are?


Rounien said...

The times that St. Martin brings to us is all about intercommunity in our family. We share glims of the very new creative ideas, that St. Martin sprincles on us just as from the snow duvet.
It's a bit of miracle to feel the circle of the seasons...
But what do children love the most? St. Martin's horse-shoes baking :-) Little sweet rolls decorated with raisins and powdered with sugar...
Thanks for Your wonderful blog post! ♥

Alyss said...

Rounien, thank you so much for your comment. Sweets are kids favorite part of every holiday, aren't they? I came across the horse shoe shaped treats in a number of sources but just didn't mention it. Next year, I will! Thank you again for the beautiful photo and the real world perspective of someone who celebrates this holiday in its traditional form.

Anonymous said...

Nicely done, Alyss! Thanks for this beautiful post.

Ria said...

I just stumbled on your blog, through the Flickr Nature tables pool. Maybe you'd like to read my small post about our celebration of Martinmas here in Holland. It's a lovely feast and I have dear memories of it, although some sad ones too, as my lantern swept away, caught fire or my candle didn't want to burn anymore when I was a young kid.
Greetings from Europe, and I keep reading your blog, I find it inspiring.