Weird Holiday: St. Martin’s Day

November 11, 2013

The holiday may not be familiar to you, but the customs certainly are.

Basic CMYKMartin of Tours seemed like a decent guy. Legend has it that in the 4th century, he gave up his job as an elite soldier in the Roman army to become a priest after helping out a beggar one night. He ultimately became a bishop, and a pacifist devoted to spreading peace, love, (and Christianity) across western Europe.

He was sainted shortly after his death, and his feast day is November 11, marking the day he was buried in 397. Though obscure in the U.S., St. Martin’s Day is widely celebrated in Europe, making it one of the oldest continuously observed holidays in the world.

The customs vary by location, and many are reminiscent of American customs for other holidays:

• In Belgium and the Netherlands, St. Martin’s Day is celebrated much more like Halloween. Children make paper lanterns and, once its dark, go door-to-door in search of candy. Instead of saying “trick or treat,” they sing songs or recite poems about St. Martin. In some communities, the search for candy begins at a local church and the kids are marched through the streets with a horseback actor dressed as Saint Martin leading the way. Afterward, there’s often a bonfire in a large public square and everybody eats pretzels.

• In the Czech Republic, it’s celebrated a lot like Thanksgiving, with feasts and a celebration of the harvest, although goose, not turkey, is the traditional entrée. Prague wine shops celebrate by opening at precisely 11:11 a.m. (in honor of the date, 11/11) and hand out free glasses of wine.

• In Malta, children each receive “Il-Borża ta’ San Martin,” or “Saint Martin’s Bag.” Similar to a Christmas stocking, it’s a colorful bag filled with fruits and candy.

• But the weirdest tradition of all comes from Ireland. While it’s not practiced much now, many people have honored the saint by not allowing any wheels to turn on St. Martin’s Day. Reason: Wheels killed St. Martin. He reportedly fell in a stream and got caught up in a mill’s wheel.