The tradition of celebrating Saint Martin’s Day in Italy
Saint Martin’s Day in Italy is a very popular celebration and we link this celebration to wine, geese and chestnuts. It is celebrated on 11th November and its origin dates back more than 1,000 years ago. Everywhere in Italy you can find celebrations, religious or not. But why is a festive day? Why Saint Martin’s Day has been called also Estate di San Martino (Indian Summer)? Why are there many festivals and religious celebrations in honour of Saint Martin in addition to November festivals and events in Italy? Why do Italians drink wine and eat goose? Wait! Don’t be hasty. There’s an interesting story that needs to be read. Are you ready?
Who is Saint Martin?
Martin was born in 316 AD in the Pannonia region (today’s Hungary). His name was chosen by his father in honour of Mars, god of war, because he was destined for military career. He studied in Pavia, where he spent his childhood until he was drafted into the imperial army at the age of 15. The Roman law obliged him to enlist into the army just like his father, even though he was a paeceable boy.
At school he started to be interested in the Catholic religion and after that he received the baptism unbeknown to his parents, because they still believed in Roman gods. His humility and his generosity were so big that many legends and stories are told about him. The most famous one is related to Saint Martin’s Day. While he was going out of Amiens in France, Martin saw a pour old man shaking with cold. So he cut his wool mantel in two parts and gave one part to the man. After that the temperature started to raise and the sun came out. Martin dreamt of Jesus that night: he was covered by half of his mantel and he was giving it to him back. When Martin woke up, the mantel was intact.
Saint Martin’s Day is also called “estate di San Martino” (Indian summer), because it refers to a mild period between 8th and 11th November. Martin died on 8th November 397, but he is celebrated on 11th, the day of his funeral.
Why is Saint Martin so popular?
Saint Martin is popular for some reasons. The first one is that the celebration of the Saint coincides with the ending of the Celts New Year’s Eve celebration, the ‘Samuin‘. As Saint Martin was well known in the Western Europe during the 8th century AD, the Church moved the Celts traditions into the Catholic celebration of the Saint. In Italy during the first day of November farmers and property owners renewed the seasonal agreements and they opened the barrels to taste the new wine for the first time. In addition to this, the fast prior to Christmas started on 12th November, for that reason people used to enjoy a banquet the day before.
Saint Martin’s common sayings
While I was gathering the information about Saint Martin I found an endless list of common sayings related to the saint and also the traditions of the countryside. Here following I wrote the list of the common sayings – some of them in local dialect – together with their meanings because they tell us how rural people spent the beginning of November in the past. Saint Martin is the day of the wine…
- “A San Martino ogni mosto diventa vino” (On Saint Martin’s Day each must becomes wine) – This is the period when the musts became wine and the farmers opened the barrels for the first time to taste the new wine.
- “Par Sa’ Marten u s’imbariega grend e znèn” (On Saint Martin’s Day adults and young get drunk) – This comes from Romagna.
- “Per San Martino si spilla il botticino” (On Saint Martin’s Day you tap the little barrel).
- “Per San Martino cadon le foglie e si spilla il vino” (On Saint Martin’s Day leaves fall and you tap the wine)
- “Chi vuol far buon vino, zappi e poti nei giorni di San Martino” (Who wants to make good wine needs to prune and hoe during Saint Martin’s Days) – Farmers had to do it if they want to make good wine in the next year.
… of good food…
- “Oche, castagne e vin ten tut pe’ San Martin” (Geese, chestnuts and wine, keep them all for St. Martin’s Day) – This comes from Piedmont.
- “Chi no magna l’oca a San Martin nol fa el beco de un quatrin!” (Who doesn’t eat the goose on St. Martin’s Day, he doesn’t make money) – If you want to have luck, follow the advice of Veneto region.
- “S’ammazza lu porcu e si sazza lu vinu” (You kill the pig and you taste the wine) – In the first days of November, in some Sicilyian cities people kill the pig to make ham, salami, zampone and sausages and they taste the wine too.
… is also the time to till the soil…
- “Se il dì di San Martino il sole va in bisacca, vendi il pane e tienti la vacca; se il sole va invece giù sereno, vendi la vacca perché è poco il fieno” (If on Saint Martin’s Day the sun goes into the saddlebag, sell the bread and keep the cow; if the sun goes down tranquil, sell the cow because the hay is few) – If on St. Martin’s Day there are clouds at sunset, you can hope for a good wheat harvest and you can make bread to sell. If the sky is clear, you need to sell the cow because you will get not enough hay to feed it.
- “A San Martinu, favi e linu” (On St. Martin’s Day, fava beans and flax) – This period is the right moment to sow fava beans and flax in Sicily.
- “A San Martino sta meglio il grano al campo che al mulino” (On St. Martin’s Day it’s better to have the grain in the soil rather than at the mill) – The sowing needs to be finished, so that when the cold days will come the seed is already under the earth.
- “Fare San Martino” (Making Saint Martin) – In the beginning of November farmer seasonal agreements ended and the property owner could decide not to renew the agreement. In this case farmers had to move looking for another property where to work for. So that “Fare San Martino” means ‘to move’.
- “L’estate di San Martino dura tre giorni e un pochinino” (The Indian Summer lasts three days and a little bit) – The warmth comes back for few days close to St. Martin’s Day.
You came at the end of the article and I want to leave you with a special poem written by Giosué Carducci, an Italian poet and writer. Tomorrow I will post an article about how we celebrate St. Martin’s Day in Italy, but in the meanwhile try to read the poem… in Italian!
San Martino by Giosué Carducci
La nebbia a gl’irti colli
E sotto il maestrale
Urla e biancheggia il mar;
Ma per le vie del borgo
Dal ribollir de’ tini
Va l’aspro odor de i vini
L’anime a rallegrar.
Gira su’ ceppi accesi
Lo spiedo scoppiettando:
Sta il cacciator fischiando
Su l’uscio a rimirar
Tra le rossastre nubi
Stormi d’uccelli neri,
Nel vespero migrar.