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Forgotten Customs of Martinmas and St. Martin’s Lent

The Daily Knight

Photo: Martinmas procession at Lambertusschule Mühlenstraße around 1930 via Wikipedia commons.

By One Peter Five.

That blessed man, Saint Martin, bishop of Tours, has entered into his rest. The Angels and Archangels, Thrones, Dominations and Powers have welcomed him. Alleluia! (Taken the Alleluia Verse in the Propers for the Feast of St. Martin of Tours in the 1962 Roman Catholic Missal).

Armistice Day & Praying for the Dead

Armistice Day is kept in honor of the ending of World War I which concluded on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. In 1954, the United States amended the holiday to include a remembrance of all the living and the dead of the nation’s veterans. And the name was subsequently changed to Veteran’s Day on June 1, 1954. We would do well to remember to pray for the souls of all who have died in battle on this day.

However, to the Catholic, November 11th is even more than a day to pray for the repose of the souls of all who have died in battle for the country’s defense. November 11th is the Feast of St. Martin of Tours, the great worker of charity who is said to have raised three persons from the dead. Known as Martinmas, this day of celebration featured numerous festivities in honor of the life and charity of St. Martin of Tours, and it is still observed by some Catholics who keep the tradition alive of carrying lanterns and eating a traditional meal of goose on this day. Note: No goose allowed on years when November 11 falls on a Friday.

Father Francis Weiser in the Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs shows that Martinmas was the Thanksgiving Day of the Middle Ages. This is not a day we should forget:

The most common, and almost universal, harvest and thanksgiving celebration in medieval times was held on the Feast of Saint Martin of Tours (Martinmas) on November 11. It was a holiday in Germany, France, Holland, England and in central Europe. People first went to Mass and observed the rest of the day with games, dances, parades, and a festive dinner, the main feature of the meal being the traditional roast goose (Martin’s goose). With the goose dinner they drank “Saint Martin’s wine,” which was the first lot of wine made from the grapes of the recent harvest. Martinmas was the festival commemorating filled barns and stocked larders, the actual Thanksgiving Day of the Middle Ages. Even today it is still kept in rural sections of Europe, and dinner on Martin’s Day would be unthinkable without the golden brown, luscious Martin’s goose.

The Second Catholic “Mardi Gras” of the Year

But St. Martin’s Day was more than just Thanksgiving, it also served as the “Mardi Gras” of Advent by ushering in the pre-Christmas fasting period known as St. Martin’s Lent. St. Martin’s Lent as a period of fasting leading up to Christmas originated as early as 480 AD. Dom Prosper Guéranger in his seminal work The Liturgical Year writes:

The oldest document in which we find the length and exercises of Advent mentioned with anything like clearness, is a passage in the second book of the History of the Franks by St. Gregory of Tours, where he says that St. Perpetuus, one of his predecessors, who held that see about the year 480, had decreed a fast three times a week, from the feast of St. Martin until Christmas…. Let us, however, note this interval of forty, or rather of forty-three days, so expressly mentioned, and consecrated to penance, as though it were a second Lent, though less strict and severe than that which precedes Easter. Later on, we find the ninth canon of the first Council of Mâcon, held in 582, ordaining that during the same interval between St. Martin’s day and Christmas, the Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, should be fasting days, and that the Sacrifice should be celebrated according to the Lenten rite. Not many years before that, namely in 567, the second Council of Tours had enjoined the monks to fast from the beginning of December till Christmas. This practice of penance soon extended to the whole forty days, even for the laity: and it was commonly called St. Martin’s Lent….There were even special rejoicings made on St. Martin’s feast, just as we see them practiced now at the approach of Lent and Easter. The obligation of observing this Lent, which, though introduced so imperceptibly, had by degrees acquired the force of a sacred law, began to be relaxed, and the forty days from St. Martin’s day to Christmas were reduced to four weeks.

The History of the Advent Fast

In historical records, Advent was originally called Quadragesimal Sancti Martini (Forty Days Fast of St. Martin). The Catechism of the Liturgy notes that this observance of fasting in some form likely lasted until the 12th century.

Turning to the Catechism of Perseverance by Monsignor Gaume from 1882, we read the following historical account of the Advent fast taking the form of a fast on the Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from St. Martin’s Day until Christmas:

The institution of Advent would seem as old as that of the festival of Christmas, though the discipline of the Church on this point has not been always the same. For several centuries, Advent consisted of forty days, like Lent: it began on St. Martin’s Day. Faithful to the old customs, the Church of Milan kept the six weeks of the primitive Advent, which had been adopted by the Church of Spain. At an early period the Church of Rome reduced the time to four weeks, that is, to four Sundays, with the part of the week remaining before Christmas. All the West followed this example.
Formerly, a fast wa