History of St Martin’s Day: That Significant Saint

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St. Martin, oil on wood (1512) from the Unterlinden Museum, Colmar, France. Image: Wikimedia


While St. Martin’s Day is not widely celebrated in the U.S., except in the more liturgical churches, St. Martin is more famous and influential than you’d think.


What is St. Martin’s Day?

November 11 celebrates Saint Martin’s Day, also known as Martinmas.

Irish tradition tells us it was called Old Halloween, or celebrated on November 10, Old Hallowmas Eve.

It was a significant festival in many parts of Europe, especially in German and Dutch-speaking areas. It marked the end of the harvest season and the start of winter and its “reveling season.”

It is named in honor of Martin of Tours, the third bishop of Tours, France. He was born in the early 4th century and died around the 8th of November, 397, hence the feast day near his death.


St Martin and Martin Luther

When Hans and Margarethe Luther took their newborn baby to be baptized at the nearby Church of St. Peter and St. Paul in Eisleben, the day after he was born was the feast day of St. Martin of Tours. Thus, they named him Martin Luther.


Luther's Baptismal Font

Baptismal font from Martin Luther’s baptism before St. Martin’s Day. Author’s photo

Part of the original baptismal font from the time of Luther’s baptism still remains there in the church. On the top is inscribed

Rudera baptistierii, quo tinctus est b. Martinus Lutherus 1483.

“Remains of the baptismal stone in which the blessed Martin Luther was baptized on 10 November 1483.”


St Martin and Christopher Columbus

The Island of St. Martin – Sint Maarten in Dutch or Saint-Martin in French – located in the southeast Dutch Caribbean is so named because on Christopher Columbus’ second voyage to the “Americas” he spotted it on St. Martin’s Day in 1943. He wanted to fulfill a vow to name the islands he encountered with the names of saints.


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Sint Maarten on the island of Saint Martin. Image: Wikipedia


Your friendly neighborhood historian is writing this article from Philipsburg, Sint Marteen.

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Author at St. Martin. Author’s photo

What is St Martin Known For?

Martin’s father was a senior military officer (tribunus militum) in the Roman army in Szombathely, Hungary. The family was restationed to northern Italy, where Martin grew up. When Martin was 10, he attended a Christian church, contrary to the desires of his parents, and became a catechumen, or one instructed in the ways of Christianity.

Christianity had been made a legal religion in the Roman Empire by Emperor Constantine in 313 A.D., though it was still a minority religion in the Empire.

Martin, as the son of a veteran officer, at 15, joined the cavalry. At 18, he was stationed in Gaul, now France. He was stationed at Milan and Trier, where his elite cavalry became the bodyguard of the Emporer Constantine II (son of Constantine the Great) and, subsequently, the antichristian Emperor Julian (“the Apostate,” nephew of Constantine the Great). Ultimately, before a battle near Worms, Germany, he informed Julian:

“I am the soldier of Christ: it is not lawful for me to fight.”

Charged with cowardice, he volunteered to go unarmed to the front lines. However, the opposing army agreed to a truce, and no conflict occurred. Martin was discharged from military service.


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St Martin leaves the life of chivalry (calvary) and renounces the army. Fresco by Simone Martini.


He relocated to Poitiers and then Tours, France, to become a monk. He converted his mother but not his father. He became a hermit and disciple of Bishop Hilary of Poitiers. He built a hermitage and so impressed the city with his character that he was acclaimed bishop of Tours. He then demolished pagan (“country dweller”) shrines, temples, and altars.

He built a monastery and developed an early parish system where he would manually visit each of his parishes. He traveled as far as Chartres, Autun, Paris, and Vienne across France. He was famous for freeing prisoners appealing to magistrates and even the Emperor.

He died in Candes-Saint-Martin in central France. It was said that

“2,000 monks, and nearly as many white-robed virgins, walked in the procession”

as Martin’s body was buried in a small grove outside Tours.


More Recent Recognition for St. Martin

tombeau de saint martin de tours

Tomb of St. Martin

More recently, his promotion as a military saint revived the cult of St. Martin during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-01. The result of the war was the defeat of Napoleon III and his Second Empire. Consequently, when Paris was evacuated during the war, the effective capital of France became Tours. As such, many pilgrims visited his tomb there, and St. Martin was considered the patron saint of the new government, the Third Republic.


St Martin and Pilgrimages

The subsequently built shrine of St Martin, located in Tours, became not only a pilgrimage destination but a stopping-off point for pilgrims on the road to Santiago de Compostela Church in Spain as part of the famous Camino de Santiago pilgrimage.



St Martin Legends

anthony van dyck saint martin sharing his cloak with a beggar

St Martin Dividing his Cloak, by van Dyck, ~1618. Image: Wikipedia

The most famous legend relates that when Martin was stationed in France with the Roman cavalry, as he approached Amiens on his horse, he encountered a poorly clad beggar. Martin quickly cut his own military cloak with his sword and gave half to the cold beggar. There are two versions of what happened next:

That night in a dream, he beheld Jesus wearing the half cloak given to the beggar and saying to his angels,

“Martin, who is still but a catechumen, clothed me with this robe.”

No doubt this refers to the story in Matthew 5:35 that Jesus tells about the Final Judgement when he will judge the nations based on whether

“I was naked and you clothed me.”

“When,” his listeners asked, “did we see you naked and clothe you?” Jesus answered,

“As you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”

The second version of the legend was that when Martin woke from sleep the next day, he discovered that his half of the cloak had been restored to fullness.

Other legends have circulated that he raised a dead man, turning back flames resulting from a Roman temple he burned, and averting the path of a falling sacred pine tree.


Common Words Associated with St Martin

The cloak that Martin kept would be kept as a relic honored by the Merovingian monarch of the Franks and later by Charlemagne and the Carolingian dynasty.

This cloak of St. Martin, which was carried into battle and upon which oaths were sworn, was the cappa Sancti Martini. The priest who carried it into battle was called a cappullanu, and eventually, all priests who served in the military were called cappellani.

  • The French translation is chapelains, from which we get the word chaplain.
  • The small temporary churches built for the relic were called capella, or “little cloak.” These small churches were later called chapels.


St Martin’s Day Traditions

St. Martin’s Day involves feasting and drinking. Some traditions surrounding the celebration are based on history, others on legend.


Goose Dinner

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Martinmas goose dinner, on St. Martin’s Eve. Image: Wikipedia

There is a popular legend that St. Martin, when trying to avoid being ordained bishop by widespread acclaim, hid in a geese pen. Their cackling gave him away. St. Martin’s Day, once a key medieval autumn feast, included the custom of eating goose to celebrate the day. This spread to Sweden from France. It was primarily observed by the craftsmen and noblemen of the towns, though the peasants ate chicken or duck.


Wine Drinking

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St Martin’s Day Feast Day, by Peeter Baltens (16th century). Image: Wikipedia

The “first wine” was ready around the time of St. Martin’s Day in the wine-growing areas of Europe. Martin is credited with introducing the Chenin Blanc grape to France. Most of the white wine of western Touraine (Tours) and Anjou is made from this grape. The picture above depicts peasants celebrating by drinking the first wine of the season and a horseman representing the saint.


Lantern Processions

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Turnip lantern. Image: World History

In some German and Dutch-speaking towns, there are nighttime processions of children carrying paper or turnip lanterns while singing songs of St Martin. Historically, turnips predated pumpkins as jack-‘o-lanterns.



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Children at a St. Maarten bonfire, Netherlands. Image: Wikimedia

In some German and Dutch-speaking towns, celebrants dance around bonfires and leap through the flames, then scatter the ashes on the fields as fertilizer. Similar Gaelic traditions appear in Samhain festivals in Ireland and Scotland. In England, bonfires are popular on Guy Fawkes Night.


Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian

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About billpetro

Bill Petro writes articles on history, technology, pop culture, and travel. He has been a technology sales enablement executive with extensive experience in Cloud Computing, Automation, Data Center, Information Storage, Big Data/Analytics, Mobile, and Social technologies.

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