St. Martin’s Day: traditions and legends, real people and places

Children with self-made lanterns for St. Martin's Day | Photo by Irina Schmidt
Children with self-made lanterns for St. Martin's Day | Photo by Irina Schmidt

St. Martin’s Day: traditions and legends, real people and places

by Karen Bradbury
Stripes Europe

Next up in the seasonal spin of German holidays is St. Martin’s Day, an unofficial holiday loved by old and young alike for different reasons.

Young people celebrate November 11, the feast day of St. Martin, by marching in parades while carrying paper lanterns they’ve crafted all by themselves. Following the parade, they may watch a spectacle portraying the saint’s most famed act of generosity: on a cold winter’s night, a young soldier by the name of Martin encountered a beggar, unclothed and freezing, by a city gate. With a cut of his sword, Martin split his cloak in two and gave half of it to the beggar. After watching this scene play out, the gathered children might receive a baked good in the form of a man with a pipe. Depending on the community, a real horse and a bonfire may make up part of the festivities.

Adults look forward to the meal associated with St. Martin’s day. The centerpiece of the St. Martin’s dinner is inevitably goose, and for a reason. Many years following the cloak-splitting incident, Martin was called to the city of Tours, in France, where he was to be made a bishop. As Martin was loath to take on the role, legend goes, he hid in a goose pen. The honking of the disturbed birds betrayed his hiding place, and thus St. Martin reluctantly became a bishop.

With such tales attached to the legend of St. Martin, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that Martin is a true historical figure. What’s more, his life story played out all over the European map. And one of the key events of his life played out in a part of Germany close to where many service members call home.

Martin was born in the year 316 (other accounts give the year as 336) in Pannonia, an area that’s now part of Hungary. His father was a tribune, a type of high-ranking official in the Roman army. A few years after Martin’s birth, the family moved to Ticinum, what is now Pavia, in northern Italy. At the age of 10, Martin took up the newly legal Christian faith. As the son of an officer, Martin too was required to join the cavalry. It is thought that he served as part of the elite cavalry bodyguard which accompanied the emperor on his travels through the Empire. This unit was known to have been stationed in Milan, Italy and Trier, Germany. The splitting of the cloak incident is said to have occurred in Amiens, France, another place where Martin was stationed.

Church of St. Martin in Worms, DE | Photo by jorisvo 

It was just prior to a battle in the Gallic provinces at Borbetomagus, the present-day city of Worms, Germany, that Martin decided his faith would not allow him to take up arms. So, declaring himself a soldier of Christ, he refused to fight, making him what some consider the first conscientious objector in the Christian church. Charged with cowardice, Martin countered with his offer to go unarmed to the front of the ranks. He was put into a prison cell. Before his superiors could take him up on his offer, the enemy surrendered and Martin was released from military service. The Church of St. Martin in Worms is reputed to stand in the same place as that very cell that once held him. The Worms’ city website places the incident in the year 357.

On your travels throughout Europe, your path may cross with other places that St. Martin passed through in his lifetime. In his role as a bishop, he is known to have traveled to Trier on occasion. He established the Abbey of Marmoutier, a monastery just outside today's city of Tours, France, around 372. A Saint Martin of Tours Route created by the European Council links up many European cities and towns that were part of his life, along with numerous other places of importance to his veneration. Thousands of monuments, including fourteen cathedrals, are dedicated to St. Martin, patron saint of beggars, weavers, tailors, vintners, innkeepers, the US Army Quartermaster Corps and France.

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