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Saint Martin's Day—Festival for the Saint of Love and Benevolence—

Teruhisa Tajima
Professor of the Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

 Saint Martin's Day is here again as harvest ends and Neuer Süßer white wine, freshly fermented from squeezed grapes picked in the fall, starts to appear on the streets.

Celebrated on November 11, Saint Martin's Day heralds the end of the harvest season and the arrival of winter. November and December were once called Schlachtmonat (months of slaughter) among German peasants. Ever since the middle ages, it has been a tradition for all the townspeople during these months to slaughter pigs, cows, geese and chickens that have been fattened from summer through fall and preserve the meat as bacon, ham, sausages and jerky. Under Weistum (common law), slaughtering animals in the other months was prohibited.

Along with the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary on February 2, Saint Martin’s Day was a day for settling wages for a year’s labor in old German tradition. The end of crop and livestock farming and the start of preparations for the harsh winter season have been identified with Saint Martin’s Day, the Saint of love and affection.

The legend of Saint Martin

Summarizing the life of Saint Martin from the Golden Legend (Legenda aurea, 13th century) by Jacobus de Voragine, Saint Martin (or Martinus) was born in 316 A.D. and became a solider in the Roman Empire. One day in winter when approaching the castle gate of Amiens (approx. 150 km north of Paris) on horseback, he met a beggar shivering in the cold. As there was nothing else he could give, Martin cut the cloak that he was wearing in two and gave one half to the beggar. That night, he dreamed of Jesus Christ wearing half of his cloak and telling the angels around him, "Martin has not yet been baptized, but he gave me this cloak." Martin later left the military and studied to become a priest under Bishop Hilarius Pictaviensis of Poitiers. Even though he declined, he was later selected as the Bishop of Tours and built a monastery outside the city, where he lived a strict monastic life with 80 disciples. Saint Martin is said to have passed away around the age of 81 in 397 A.D. According to legend, nobody had ever seen Saint Martin get angry, be sad or laugh. All he ever said was in the name of Christ, and his heart was only full of gentleness, tranquility and benevolence.

Saint Martin's Day

Children coming to meet Saint Martin

Children are the main focus of Saint Martin’s Day, which is now celebrated throughout Europe. The children light their homemade lanterns and sing songs about the Saint, while trudging through the snow to meet Saint Martin on his horse and his attendant at the castle gate or village entrance. They shout cheerfully as they greet Saint Martin’s troupe and the procession moves towards the church. A bonfire is lit at the church and the bells toll while candies and fruits are handed out to the children. The children then put down old candles and go home carrying new candles lit with the fire at the church that day. There is also a tradition of eating goose on Saint Martin’s day. This is said to have come about because when Saint Martin was asked to become a bishop, he hid himself, but a goose cackled and gave away his whereabouts. However, the custom of eating goose can actually be traced back to a time before the spread of Christianity, as a remnant of the tradition of eating sacrifices offered to the Germanic gods.

Gansabhauet in Sursee (Cutting down the goose from a rope)

The stage in front of the city hall for Gansabhauet in Sursee, Switzerland

In Sursee, a suburb of Lucerne in Switzerland, a festival called Gansabhauet in Sursee is celebrated each year on November 11, Saint Martin's Day. A stage is prepared in the square in front of the city hall, and young people wearing a blindfold and a mask, symbolizing the sun, attempt to cut down a dead goose from a rope that has been hung with a saber. Each participant gets only one try. If successful, they receive the goose as a prize. As other regions also appear to have a custom of sacrificing chickens or geese to Saint Martin to prevent stomachaches, this festival may be related to the tradition of making offerings at harvest festivals. Afterwards, there is a festival for children, in which they can receive cheese if they make funny faces and enjoy playing traditional games.

A failed contestant returning

Children attempting Käszännet, where they must make funny faces to get cheese

Guardian Saint Martin

November 11 is the day Saint Martin died. Excluding the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist, festivals for saints are generally held on the day that the saint died the ecclesiastical calendar. The reason for this is because the tradition of celebrating birthdays was not originally part of the Christian tradition. The way that a person lived their life was considered more important than the day they were born, and the day a saint died was believed to be the day that they began their eternal life.

Saint Martin, who lived in a time immediately after Christianity was officially recognized by Roman Emperor Constantine in the Edict of Milan (313 A.D.), differs from apostle saints such as Peter, Paul and James for he was not martyred. However, he is remembered for his miracles as a saint in the earliest ages of Christianity who also enjoyed rare longevity. Saint Martin made efforts to preach in pagan areas and also poured his strength into converting people of the Arian faith. Linking austere monastic principles with apostleship, he was respected as a model for monastic life in Western Europe. Saint Martin's cappa (cloak) has been preserved as a holy relic in a building that is now called a capella, the origin of the word “chapel.”

Saint Martin is the patron saint for many cities in Hungary and France including Amiens, Avignon, Colmar, Kassel, Mainz, Paris and Salzburg. He is also venerated as a patron saint for vagabonds, the poor, fabric workers, armor producers, soldiers, horses and livestock such as geese, lepers and sick children, making him a saint with unprecedented deep connections among the masses.

Teruhisa Tajima
Professor of the Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

Born in 1947 in Tokyo, Teruhisa Tajima graduated from the Department of Philosophy of the School of Letters, Arts and Sciences I, Waseda University. He later graduated from the Department of Philosophy of the First School of Philosophy of Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg (Magister) in Germany. Before his current position, he served as assistant professor at Meisei University, an assistant professor, an assistant professor (without tenure) and professor at the School of Commerce, Waseda University. He is a Ph.D. professor (letters).

Researching Meister Eckhart—The Triade Structure of Thought—esse/creation/generatio theory (Sobunsha, 1996), Iwanami Bunka Eckhart Preaching (edited and translated, Iwanami Shoten, 1990), Iwanami Bunka Zen Phrases (co-authored, Iwanami Shoten, 2009), German Mysticism Series 4 Tauler Preaching (edited and translated, Sobunsha, 2004), The Strange Miracle of Christmas and Healing of the Sick (multiple authors, Nine Bible Adventures, Bungeishunju, 1995), Basic Theory of Origin of Meister Eckhart (multiple authors, Faith and Knowledge in the Middle Ages, Chisen Shokan, 2013), History of German Mystic Thought and Impact on the Present (multiple authors, Iwanami Koza Religion 4: To Origins, Iwanami Shoten, 2004) and Temporal Comprehension of German Mystic Thought—Immediate Moment Theory of Meister Eckhart (multiple authors, Perceptions of Time in Europe in the Middle Ages, Chisen Shokan, 2012).