Join Gloria’s Christmas Campaign. Donate now!

Martinmas Traditions

Rebuilding Catholic culture through art, festivity, education, Catholic history and traditions, and a life shaped by prayer. St. Martin of Tours (c.316-97) can be considered one of the original buil…More
Rebuilding Catholic culture through art, festivity, education, Catholic history and traditions, and a life shaped by prayer. St. Martin of Tours (c.316-97) can be considered one of the original builders of Catholic culture. Thanks to Sulpitius Severus, we have a detailed biography speaking of his life as a soldier, his dramatic refusal to bear arms, his fight against Arianism, his eradication of paganism in rural France, his establishment of many monasteries, and teaching as bishop. Part of establishing a Catholic culture necessitated establishing vineyards, which were needed to celebrate Mass. Overall, he was the Apostle of rural France, converting the pagans (literally “country folk”) by preaching, overturning the idols and altars, and building new institutions.
It cannot be a coincidence that Armistice Day (now Veteran’s Day), November 11, 1919, occurred on Martin’s feast day, himself a veteran of the Roman army. The most famous anecdote from his life occurred while still a soldier. We can take for granted that he cut up his red robe for the beggar (who later appeared to him as Christ), but as a soldier he was giving away part of his uniform, making it an even more dramatic act and showing his willingness to put God before all else (even though this occurred before his Baptism).
This scene was a popular one to paint in the Middle Ages, but also in the Golden Age of Spain and the Spanish Netherlands, with masters such as El Greco and van Dyck depicting it:

His November 11th feast day (Martinmas Day) was a big deal in the Middle Ages. It served a purpose similar to our Thanksgiving as the great Fall feast, coming at the time of the harvest, the slaughtering of animals (cattle and pigs), and enjoying the new wine. A goose, not a turkey, however, was the bird of choice, which bore a connection to St. Martin’s life, as he hid among the geese to avoid becoming a bishop. The day was a fall Carnival, as his feast also marked the beginning of preparations for Christmas and, at one point, signaled the start of the original Advent of forty-three days.
Venerable Prosper Guéranger, the great re-founder of Benedictine monasticism in France in the 1800s, including one of St. Martin’s original sites at Ligugé, described the link of St. Martin’s Day to the origins of Advent:
The oldest document in which we find the length and exercises of Advent mentioned with anything like clearness, is a passage in the second book of the History of the Franks by St. Gregory of Tours, where he says that St. Perpetuus, one of his predecessors, who held that see about the year 480, had decreed a fast three times a week, from the feast of St. Martin until Christmas…. Let us, however, note this interval of forty, or rather of forty-three days, so expressly mentioned, and consecrated to penance, as though it were a second Lent, though less strict and severe than that which precedes Easter.
Later on, we find the ninth canon of the first Council of Mâcon, held in 582, ordaining that during the same interval between St. Martin’s day and Christmas, the Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, should be fasting days, and that the Sacrifice should be celebrated according to the lenten rite. Not many years before that, namely in 567, the second Council of Tours had enjoined the monks to fast from the beginning of December till Christmas. This practice of penance soon extended to the whole forty days, even for the laity: and it was commonly called St. Martin’s Lent….There were even special rejoicings made on St. Martin’s feast, just as we see them practised now at the approach of Lent and Easter. The obligation of observing this Lent, which, though introduced so imperceptibly, had by degrees acquired the force of a sacred law, began to be relaxed, and the forty days from St. Martin’s day to Christmas were reduced to four weeks.
Ven. Prosper Guéranger, “Advent” in The Liturgical Year.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder captured the Carnival-like nature of the feast day in the late Middle Ages (which remained even after Advent began later). You can still see the image of St. Martin sharing his cloak in the bottom right (perhaps a reenactment), which, along with the cross in the top left, stands in sharp contrast to the frenzy centered on the new wine.

Bruegel accurately portrays the tension of medieval festivity. Josef Pieper speaks of the nature of festivity in eating, drinking, and dancing to affirm the goodness of creation and in praise of God’s work of redemption (see his book In Tune with the World). However, the celebration could turn to an excess that obscures the very reason for holding it, which Bruegel presents in the neglect of St. Martin and the Cross in the corners and apart
from most everyone’s attention. St. Martin established vineyards for the glorification of God through the Mass, not for the excess that flowed from the distortion of his feast day.
Although Martinmas does not play a key role in American culture, we can recapture the importance of the day. For Catholic veterans, it provides a day to pray to this great solider of Christ, their perfect patron. It is a Catholic day to give thanks for the harvest and to begin getting focused for Advent (even if it no longer marks the official beginning of the season). Byzantine Catholics begin their Nativity fast on November 15th (now connected to St. Philip instead of St. Martin), which includes abstaining from meat and animal produces, dairy, oil, and alcohol, with stricter fasting requirements on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday (which can help Latin rite Catholics to rediscover the penitential nature of Advent). Martinmas bears witness to the need for rightly ordered feasting to give thanks to God and also how this feasting relates to the penitential seasons that remind us that our true, unending feast awaits in Heaven.…
Susi 47 likes this.