Nowadays, in many Western countries the latter half of autumn signals the coming of Halloween on October 31st. Halloween is the last major celebration before Christmas, and already in early October spooky decorations and costumes creep into shops, schools and houses. However, in many European countries, Halloween is a relatively new celebration which has only begun to be widely celebrated in the last few decades, if at all. For countries such as the Netherlands, Germany and Portugal, Martinmas, or Saint Martin's Day, is the more prominent autumnal celebration.
Taking place on the 11th of November, Martinmas celebrates the death of Saint Martin, a Roman soldier who was baptised as an adult, and who later became a monk. The legend states that Martin saw a beggar exposed to the freezing cold, and so cut his cloak in two to share with the man, saving his life. Martin is known as a symbol of charity and generosity and is a patron to the poor.
The date of Saint Martin’s death on the 11th coincides with the end of harvest, and so many traditional celebrations are synonymous with enjoying a feast or indulging in certain delicacies. In Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands, schoolchildren design paper lanterns and visit houses in the neighbourhood singing songs in exchange for sweets.
Here is an example of a Dutch 'Saint Maarten' song:
Elf november is de dag, dat mijn lichtje branden mag
Eleventh November is the day, that my lantern may shine
In Portugal, the date also celebrates the end of wine season. The Portuguese celebrate in large communities by sampling newly harvested wine and roasting chestnuts on bonfires. They also sing a traditional tune:
É dia de São Martinho. Comem-se castanhas; prova-se o vinho!
It is St Martin’s Day. We will eat chestnuts, we will taste the wine
While in Malta, children are given a little bag of goodies, which often contain an assortment of dried figs, nuts, tangerines and oranges.
Halloween and Saint Martin's Day have very little in common; Saint Martin's Day shares none of the spookiness of Halloween, and Halloween is not connected to the historical figure of Saint Martin. However, one thing they do share is an appetite for treats and sweets!
Does your country celebrate Saint Martin's Day?