The 11th of November is the saint day for St Martin Bishop of Tours (died 397 C.E.). He is most famous for splitting his cloak in two with his sword in order to share it with a beggar. He was a solider in the Roman legions, a Christian at a time when the religion had just been made legal, and a reluctant bishop of Tours (in what became France).
Growing up in the Episcopal Church, I didn’t have much experience with the idea of saint days. I don’t know if it was because we didn’t make a big deal of them in the diocese of Wyoming, or because I just never noticed.
My first experience with St. Martin’s day was through my housemate. Her father’s family were Latvians who were displaced by World War II and who, after quite some time in the deportation camps in Europe, emigrated to America. She lost touch with her Latvian roots as many American-born children do and it wasn’t until she was in her 30’s that she began reclaiming that connection. She started learning Latvian from her father and joined a local Latvian dance troupe to begin participating in the Latvian community.
Mārtiņi (Martin’s) is celebrated in Latvia (and many of the surrounding countries) every year on November 10th and traditionally marks the end of the autumn in-gathering and preparations for the winter to come. Part of the tradition includes mummers dressing up and going house to house (somewhat like Halloween in the USA) but it is also a harvest festival and celebration of the wealth that a good harvest can bring. During the years our housemate was dancing, we would attend the local Mārtiņi celebration to watch her troupe dance.
I had not realized until now how much St Martin’s historical feast day had been a part of the development of our tradition of Advent. From the late 4th century through the middle ages, St Martin’s day on November 11th, marked the beginning of 40 days of fasting through to Epiphany on the 6th of January. That period of preparation and fasting eventually grew (with other cultural influences) into our modern concept of Advent as a time of reflection and preparation for the coming birth of the Christ child.
The 11th of November is also Armistice Day, marking the end of the fighting World War I which later evolved (in the US) into Veteran’s Day which is intended to be a day of thanksgiving, prayer, and “exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations” (from the original concurrent resolution passed by congress on 4 June 1926).
So let us give thanks on this day which has been host to a generous saint, the end of the first ‘great war,’ the remembrance of those who served and sacrificed in war (St Martin included) the joy of the harvest, and the beginning of fasting and anticipation of the birth of Christ.
If you are interested here is a video that captures some of the spirit of Mārtiņi from a group of Australian Latvians. The title of the song roughly translates to ‘Dance, Bears’ and the dance shows off a bit of the mummer tradition.
Kristin Fontaine is an itinerant Episcopalian, crafter, hobbyist, and unstoppable organizer of everything. She spends a lot of time thinking about the meaning of life and her relationship to God and it all spills out in the essays she writes. She and her husband run Dailey Data Group, a statistical consulting company.
Image: “Ludwigshafen-Oppau-St.-Martin-Kirche-Martin” by Immanuel Giel – Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons