St. Martin's Day in Poland

The Conclusion of the Agrarian Year: As the days get darker and colder, and winter seems to be around the corner, the final post-harvest festivity in Poland that is celebrated is the ancient feast of St. Martin's Day. It is observed on November 11 (Jul. cal.) or November 24 (civil calendar). This historically marked the conclusion of the agrarian year and the onset of winter. This period marked the completion of field work, storage of tools, and the replenishing of cellar stocks, known as 'Martin's granaries.' Cattle were led out to pasture for the final time before being ushered back into the barns for winter with pine trees or birch switches called marcinkas.

Origins and Associations: St. Martin's Day originally bore associations with the benevolent gods of abundance. With pantries and granaries brimming, it marked the time for slaughtering surplus livestock, baking, smoking, or drying meats and preparing winter provisions. This period was referred to as 'podgardle' or 'jowl month' due to the prevalent slaughtering activities in November.

Transformation of Festivals: Pre-Christian festivals underwent a transformation as they were sublimated and assimilated by the church, gradually replaced by Christian feasts. Similarly, Martinmas appears to have followed this pattern. Initially, it was a festival involving animal sacrifices to domestic guardian spirits, gods of abundance, and ancestors. Today, meats are blessed and consumed in honor of St. Martin.

Harvest and Thanksgiving Festivity: The celebration served as both a harvest and thanksgiving festival. In the morning, everyone attended Mass (i.e. Divine Liturgy), followed by a day filled with feasting, consumption of the season's new wine, lively parades, and various games. After Easter and Christmas ritual feasts, St. Martin's Day ranks the third feast of importance within the Polish calendar of traditions.

St. Martin: Soldier, Saint, and Patron

St. Martin was the son of a Roman soldier and later joined the military himself. The most well-known tale from his life stems from this era: encountering a nearly naked, destitute man, St. Martin shared his soldier's cloak. This act led to his recognition as the patron of the poor and soldiers. Another story recounts his refusal of becoming a bishop, hiding from the pope's emissary, revealed by the cackling of geese.

These geese, for their betrayal, are said to carry their punishment even now. This narrative gave rise to the tradition of roasting geese on November 11. His feast day was established in the mid-7th century to honor his burial date, November 11. The goose is frequently depicted alongside St. Martin in medieval headstones, stained glass illustrations, and calendars.

St. Martin's Day Feast: Culinary Traditions

Roast goose held the position of the ritual dish during the fest. On this day it was customary to bring fat geese to the manor, monastery, and church because in late autumn, geese are at their plumpest and finest. Some Polish villages held contests for the most impressive goose on St. Martin's Day.

Rogale świętomarcińskie of various sizes were baked filled with poppy seeds, marzipan, nuts, or plum jam. These croissants, resembling St. Martin's horseshoes, were historically gifted by girls to their chosen ones. The custom of baking these treats has endured and is still practiced in regions like Greater Poland and Silesia.

All these delicacies were complemented by copious amounts of alcoholic beverages, notably beer, mead, and the new red wine referred to as St. Martin's wine.

Reflecting Christian charity and the obligation of almsgiving, the abundant table offerings were shared with the beggars (i.e. dziady) and the impoverished. Some believed beggars to be incarnated ancestral spirits.

Mummers and Tradition: Celebratory Processions on St. Martin's Eve

Gazeta Współczesna - Robert Gaweł

St. Martin's Eve marks one of several occasions throughout the year when masked processions meander through villages making a terrible din and merry ruckus. The participants, known as mummers or maskers (przebierańcy), don elaborate outlandish or animal costumes.

Accompanied by jingling bells and rhythmic drumbeats, they traverse from cottage to cottage, both frightening and delighting children. Unlike mummers on other occasions, these individuals don't beg for treats but, in a reversal, delight their audience by offering sweets, nuts, apples, or pears.

Mumming, prevalent across Europe, is believed to be a relic of ancient shamanistic practices, agrarian fertility rites, zoomorphic cults, or ancestor cults. of course now, it has evolved into a form of play and tradition, no longer associated with occult practices.

In Poland, various types of maskers and mumming practices occur throughout the year, such as the Polish kolędnicy, herody, turonie, koza, niedźwiedź, draby, dziady śmigustne, pucheroki, and more.

St. Martin's Bonfires: Traditions and Symbolism

Until World War II, it was a widespread custom in various rural areas to ignite St. Martin's Bonfires. Bearing in mind the calendar shift, St. Martin's Day was previously known as Old Hallowtide, and these bonfires were lit as a means of protection against diseases (morowe powietrze).

The fires of Martinmas likely played a role in an older European solar cult, strengthening the sun during the winter months. Our ancestors held hearth fires as sacred, recognizing fire for its provision of light, warmth, and security against darkness and cold.

In Christian tradition, fire symbolises the light of Christ. Let's not forget that candles are burned in church and bonfires are blessed on Holy Saturday. In the city, we can burn vigil lights and place them on window sills on St. Martin's Eve. 

St. Martin's Day Proverbs

A significant collection of proverbs emerged, predicting winter's weather on this day, believed to signal the arrival of the winter season. Some of these include:

  • Od świętego Marcina zima się zaczyna: 
    From Saint Martin's Day winter has begun.
  • Mróz na Marcina, będzie tęga zima: 
    Frost on Martin's Day foretells a severe winter.
  • Gdy liście przed Marcinem nie upadają, to mroźną zimę przepowiadają: 
    If leaves don't fall before Martin's Day, they predict a frosty winter.
  • Jaki dzień świętego Marcina, taka będzie cała zima:
    As is St. Martin's Day, so will be the entire winter. 
  • Pierś z Marcinowej gęsi jeśli biała, to zima dobrze będzie statkowała:
    The breast from St. Martin's goose, if white, then winter will fare well.

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