Today is the feast of St. Martin of Tours, one of the most popular saints of the Middle Ages -- and one that's still well known today -- mainly for the famous story of his splitting his cloak with the beggar. I think most Catholics can call up the cloak story from memory at a moment's notice. Remember how the tale goes? After he had split his cloak in two to help a beggar, Christ revealed Himself to Martin in a dream, telling him that what Martin had done for the beggar, had been done for Christ, Himself. Isn't this a great exemplary tale? It's one the children especially remember, but, though it's certainly a good representation of St. Martin's charity, it misses a lot of the story of the real man.
St Martin was born in present-day Hungary in the early fourth century, but his father, a Roman tribune, was re-stationed, so Martin actually grew up in Italy. Against his parents' wishes, Martin, while still barely a child, began to study Christianity, then a "legal" religion under Constantine. When he was only fifteen years old, because he was the son of a veteran officer, he was obliged to join the Roman calvary. Thus he began his adult life as a Roman soldier, eventually winding up in Gaul (present-day France).
St. Martin’s mission was to complete the destruction of paganism, which had been driven from the towns by the martyrs but remained up to his time master of vast territories removed from the influence of the cities. All of Gaul heard from him. St. Martin of Tours preaches the word of God throughout Gaul.
Against the fury of the pagan population Martin’s only arms were the miracles he wrought, the visible assistance of the Angels sometimes granted to him, and, above all the prayers and tears he poured out before God, when the hard-heartedness of the people resisted the means by which Martin changed the face of the country.
Where he found scarcely a Christian on his arrival, he left scarcely an infidel at his departure. The temples of the idols were immediately replaced by temples of the true God. For, says Sulpicius Severus, as soon as he had destroyed the houses of superstition, he built churches and monasteries. It is thus that all Europe is covered with sanctuaries bearing the name of St. Martin."
Other Facts Regarding St. Martin
* St. Martin of Tours is the patron saint against poverty and alcoholism; he is the patron of: beggars; the cavalry; Church Lads' and Church Girls' Brigade; TV Commercials; France; geese; horses; hotel-keepers; innkeepers; the Pontifical Swiss Guards; quartermasters; reformed alcoholics; riders; soldiers; tailors; wine growers; wine makers.
* During the Middle Ages, St. Martin’s cloak, (cappa Sancti Martini), was preserved at the Marmoutier Abbey, near to Tours, one of the most sacred relics of the French kings, would be carried everywhere the king went, even into battle, as a holy relic upon which oaths were sworn.
* A highly popular site of pilgrimage during the Middle Ages, St. Martin's tomb and the basilicas which enclosed it over the years were raided in turn by the Vikings in 996, the Huegenots in 1562, and the anarchists of the French Revolution in 1802. From amidst the rubble left by the French revolutionists, however, the tomb of St. Martin was finally rediscovered in 1860, and the veneration of the site and popular devotion to St. Martin was renewed.
* From the 4th century through the late Middle Ages, the feast of St. Martin began the forty day period of fasting previous to the feast of Christmas. As with its parallel fasting tide, Lent, the eve of St. Martin, was in former days, a day of feasting and revelry. The period of preparation before Christmas was shortened from the forty days of Martinmas to our modern-day Advent time period of four Sundays by Pope Gregory VII in the eleventh century.
Celebrating the Feast!
* In Flanders and in some parts of the Netherlands, it's traditional for children to process around their villages bearing paper lanters in honor of St. Martin. A man on horseback, dressed as the saint, often leads the procession.
~ Patterns for beautiful, intricate Paper Lanterns can be found here and here and here.
~ Cathy's tin can lantern (a safe alternative for a real candle) can be found here.
~ An awesome balloon lantern tutorial (and other great Martinmas ideas) can be found here.
~ A tutorial on a beautiful felt lantern swag can be found here.
* In Portugal, Catholics gather into little parties called "Magustas," where they roast chestnuts around festive campfires.
~ The facts on roasting chestnuts on your own open fire can be found here.
* It's in Portugal, as well, that "St. Martin's Summers" ("Verão de São Martinho") recall a certain legend of St. Martin's cloak. In this addendum to the popular story, it seems that after giving the first half of his cloak to one beggar, St. Martin donated the second half to another beggar. Then, instead of suffering the freezing weather, through a heavenly intervention, the dark clouds cleared away and the sun shone so intensely that the frost melted. The phenomena of a sunny break to cold weather on Saint Martin's Day is now called a "St. Martin Summer."
~ It snowed here today, so no St. Martin's Summer for us!
* But, warm or cold outside, we can celebrate with good things to eat! In Poland the feast is celebrated with sweet crescent rolls called rogal świętomarciński:
~ An easy recipe for St. Martin's Crescents can be found here.
~ And Catholic Cuisine has scads more recipes and ideas for celebrating Martimas gastronomically!
* Common practices of the day include remembering St. Martin's charity by donating to the needy in his honor on this day. Bringing coats or blankets to homeless shelters are particularly appropriate works of mercy! Also, many families take this opportunity to present the children with gifts of new scarves and mittens.
* And, of course we have to have coloring pages:
Or best yet... Especially since the above engravings are both a bit fuzzy, run over and grab a beautiful coloring page from Charlotte!
* This post a reprint from 2011