san martino celebration - wine and chestnuts

On this day in history: Feast of San Martino


On this day, Saint Martin was buried in France. According to legend, on a freezing night a Roman soldier called Martin, cut his cloak in two and donated half to a beggar. He became a symbol of Christian charity and is the patron saint of the poor and soldiers. Throughout Italy, San Martino is celebrated with food, wine and in some parts of the country, processions.

Martin was born in Szombathely, Pannonia (today Hungary), in a pagan family, around 316-317 AD. The son of a Roman army officer, he enlisted very young in the imperial cavalry, serving in Gaul.

It is at this time that on a freezing night Martin on horseback, with his sword cut through his military cloak, donating half to a beggar. After leaving the army in 356, already baptised, he joined at Poitiers the learned Bishop Hilary who ordained him as an exorcist (a first step toward priesthood.)

In 371 he was elected bishop of Tours. For some time, however, he stayed in another monastery he had founded four km from the city, called Marmoutier. From here he started his mission, which was to last over 20 years, to Christianise the countryside, where Christ was still “the God worshiped in the city.”

He died in Candes (Indre-et-Loire, France), on November 8th 397, around midnight on a Sunday. The feast day is celebrated on the date of his burial.

The legend

It was a night of cold and rain. Upon reaching a city gate, the horse refused to enter. There was a beggar, sitting against the wall, in the freezing cold. Martin dismounted and with his sword cut his cloak in two, offering half to the beggar. Then he went back to his horse and entered the city.

In the night, a shining figure appeared behind him wearing his cloak, and said, “It’s me you helped.” It was Jesus. From then on Martin dedicated himself to spreading the word of Christianity.

Another part of the legend, says that upon donating his cloak, the air became warm like summer. A San Martino summer –‘Estate di San Martino’, is similar to an ‘Indian summer’ in Britain, with unseasonably warm days.

Martin and geese

There’s also a connection between Martin and geese. According to tradition, he wasn’t keen on the idea of becoming Bishop of Tours. He decided to hide in a shed of geese, so he wouldn’t be ordained. However, the geese revealed his presence by honking. His goose was cooked!

In many parts of Italy, the custom is to eat goose on Saint Martin’s day.

Celebrating San Martino in Italy

The festivities vary slightly according to the region of Italy. For example, in the Veneto region, people prepare or buy the “dolce di San Martino”, a shortcut pasty biscuit with the shape of the Saint riding a horse. Goose is a popular celebratory meal.

In Umbria a cheese bread is prepared, the Pan caciato of San Martino. It includes raisins, walnuts and pecorino cheese, and is often accompanied by the ‘vin novello’.

In Grottammare, Le Marche, there is a two-day celebration starting on the 10th November. There’s a street market with food and wine the primary products. Rather than goose, porchetta (pork) is enjoyed, along with chestnuts and there is plenty of tasting of the new wine.

In Southern Italy, it is a similar routine with new wine is tasted, chestnuts eaten and a roast goose.

An amusing element is that  St. Martin’s Day is also the festival of betrayed husbands – the cuckold. Many men wish their married friends a “happy San Martin” in jest. In some regions, cuckolds are celebrated with processions, musical bands, and the coronation of the year’s cuckold.

Italian Proverbs related to San Martino

  • A San Martino ogni mosto è vino – At St. Martin each must is wine.
  • A San Martino si lascia l’acqua e si beve il vino- At St. Martin’s you leave water and drink wine.
  • Per San Martino castagne e buon vino – For St. Martin’s chestnuts and good wine.
  • L’estate di San Martino dura tre giorni e un pocolino – St. Martin’s summer lasts three days and a little bit.

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