November 11th is Martinmas, and Old Hallowmas Eve, a confluence of calendar dates and old folk customs.
These festivals are part of the folk wisdom of our not too distant European ancestors and the earth wisdom and spiritual sense that brought meaning and rhythm to their lives.
It’s good to touch back into these things. We can learn about them and bring forward any parts that bring meaning and rhythm to our modern lives, helping us connect to something that is rooted in the earth, and the soul rather than in the electronic, digital and virtual that dominates our days.
These old folk feasts and festivals have a cunning knack for leading us forward rather than backward.
Time is an infinite, ever growing web of circles, overlapping, intersecting and nesting one within the other. This is evidenced by the numerous calendar systems that linger, overlap and influence us.
There are fiscal calendars, academic calendars, calendars that begin on Sunday and some that begin on Monday. Currently our ordinary calendar is the Gregorian, which replaced the Julian, four hundred and forty years ago.
The Gregorian calendar fixed a time drift problem but also pushed the timing of earth based feasts, festival and holy days a bit out of whack.
However, this abundance of calendars offers us more opportunities to find our personal rhythm, and offers more chances for us to fit pauses into our crowded and fast paced lives.
If the celebration of All Hallows Eve, Hallowe’en, aka Samhain, got completely crowded out of your life this year, and you weren’t able to take time to celebrate it as you had hoped, a quick pivot to the old Julian calendar offers another opportunity.
Using that calendar, All Hallows Eve, doesn’t occur until somewhere around the middle of November. Feel free to celebrate Old Hallowmas Eve at the actual time in the year your ancestors would have celebrated it, somewhere between November 11th and November 15th.
Time is really just a concept and an elastic one at that.
This mid-November date falls just after the ending of the Octave of All Saints or what is sometimes called The Poor Souls’ Octave. The Octave is the first eight days of November during which the departed and the poor are remembered and prayed for.
This is the time in the old European agricultural calendar that marks the start of winter. It also happens that brewed beer and wine first becomes ready at this time making it an ideal time for a feast!
Who is St. Martin?
Born of pagan parents somewhere between 316 and 336, CE in what is now Szombathely, Hungary.
Martin chose Christianity at a young age and while still a youth was forced into the Roman army. It is during this time of his life we find his most well known story.
One bitter cold snowy night he passed beneath an archway in Amiens, Gaul (now France). Huddled under the archway Martin came upon a poor man, barely clothed desperate from the cold.
Martin removed his soldier’s cloak and with his sword cut it in half, and gave half his cloak to the poor beggar, saving him from the elements.
The Roman Soldier’s cloak was also his bedroll, thick and warm, meant to help him survive both battle and rough weather during long marches.
That very night Martin had a vision of Jesus wearing the half-cloak and saying to the angels, “Here is Martin, the Roman soldier who is now baptized; he has clothed me.”
For Martin the dream was the beginning of his life long devotion to all mankind rich or poor. In time Martin become known as Martin the Merciful protector of children and the poor.
Later in life the humble Martin not desiring power or fame, tried to escape being ordained a bishop by hiding in a goose pen, but the honking of the geese gave him away. And so feasting on goose became part of the important medieval festival of Martinmas.
Folk Hero, Saint, + The Sacred Masculine
In St. Martin we have a folk hero and saint who embodies the traits of the sacred masculine.
Though conscripted as a soldier he petitioned the Emperor to be released from service. As a man dedicated to peace, he would not fight. Martin a man of the sword chooses to be a man of peace.
Martin is a soldier turned humble monk who hides among geese with all their silly and ridiculous connotations to avoid power and fame.
He exemplifies the masculine energies of protection by caring for the vulnerable, children and poor. He assumes humility in the face of power bestowed.
This is the sacred masculine, its work in the world, and its highest calling.
St. Martin serves as inspiration for the elevation of the masculine to its sacred potential. We see this as the right use of strength that shields, protects and provides for others. We also see energy that works with the land, conserves resources rather than exploiting them, and inventories, stocks up and administers so that there will be enough to sustain those in his care. All of these traits are features of the season of Martinmas.
Gateways into the Winter Season
Once All Hallows has passed, and the Octave of Poor Souls is completed we enter into a time of gateways that lead into winter.
In a rather magical way in some countries, Martinmas celebrations begin at the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of this eleventh day of the eleventh month (that is, at 11:11 am on 11 November).
Martinmas and later Catterntide on November 25th, (which I will explore in another article) open gateways for men and women respectively to enter into winter.
These gateways are built around the change of work, and move the wheel of their life and daily tasks in complete harmony with The Wheel of the Year.
Summer work is put to rest and winter work begins. This was how the community moved forward together into winter.
For men that meant working the land sowing winter wheat. Then a move from the fields to the forest for butchering hogs and preserving meat to ensure food supplies for the winter. This was followed by felling trees for fire wood. After that coppicing trees, a traditional method of managing the woods to renew the trees that are cut down. There was also hunting, fishing and tending winter crops and animals.
On St. Martin’s Eve (the evening of 10 November). Bonfires were built and children carried lanterns in the streets after dark, singing songs for which they were rewarded with sweets.
Martinmas begins the celebrations of light meant to hold the ancient winter darkness at bay
I love this idea of winter work. As we live our own Wheel of the Year discovering what kind of work we do best in winter is one way to embrace the season and find a rhythm that harmonizes with the energy of the earth in this sometimes difficult season.
Is winter a time you like to bake? Is the cold and quiet of winter the time you write best? Is it the season of the year you catch up with friends and family? Do you paint, craft, cook?
This rhythmic shift into winter work can provide an important way for you to be with winter even if it’s not your favorite season. If it is your favorite season see if you can pinpoint the winter work that makes it a special time for you.
Like so many seasonal folk feast days Martinmas is tied to divining the weather.
Weather prognosticators proclaim that if the weather is warm on Martinmas, then a harsh winter will follow. But if the weather on Martinmas is cold and icy by Christmas it will be much warmer.
Below are several weather rhymes for Martinmas
‘If ducks do slide at Martinmas
At Christmas they will swim;
If ducks do swim at Martinmas
At Christmas they will slide’
‘Ice before Martinmas,
Enough to bear a duck.
The rest of winter,
Is sure to be but muck!’
‘If the geese at Martin’s Day stand on ice, they will walk in mud at Christmas’
This reckoning of time by folk saint’s feast days, tying that to the kind of work one should be doing, and also to natural forces like the weather show a kind of life that is tied together by the threads of spiritual, practical and natural forces.
For many hundreds, if not thousands of years, these threads wove an intricate cloth which created a meaningful, dependable life for our ancestors. It created a kind of repeating certainty in an often uncertain world.
Our own world is uncertain too. Finding our way back to connections to spirit, land, season, and earth serves to ground us. It also gives us an opportunity to understand where we have come from and what we are being called to remember. It helps to show us what it is we need to live in integrity with the earth and community with each other.
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