Wednesday, November 11, 2015

11. November, Martinstag

Martinstag sneaked (snuck, for American and Canadian readers) up on me this year! I should have wished M well, I should have made a reservation at the restaurant, I should have prepared or purchased a small gift and a lantern...but since I still use an American calendar (yes, one of those old-fashioned paper ones) which doesn't mention Martinstag, I'll be scrambling this morning to make up for my forgetfulness. I've already noted it in next year's calendar, so I will have no excuses then.

So if you'll allow me, I will re-publish last year's post about this special day. I was pretty thorough, and I don't know what more I could write anyway.

On November 11th Americans celebrate Veterans' Day. This date is special in Germany as well, as it is Martinstag, or the Feast Day of St. Martin. If your name is Martin, this is your day!

The tradition of the Namenstag goes back to the Middle Ages. Birthdays were not seen as very important, and often a person didn't even know his own birthday. Perhaps this was because the mortality rate among infants and children was rather high, and by the time a child had made it through the most critical period, the family members may not have recalled on exactly which day the child had been born. Dates other than significant church calendar dates weren't terribly important anyway.

A child named Martin therefore celebrated his Namenstag on 11. November every year, because that was the day assigned to the name Martin (to honor St. Martin of Tours). The Namenstag or feast day was normally assigned based on either the baptism date (as in the case of St. Martin of Tours) or the death date of the saint. Although the custom began with Christian origins, it has become more of a cultural thing than a religious one nowadays. At the same time, the Namenstag tradition is more common in Catholic regions and in Catholic families. Protestants don't have to feel guilty about recognizing the day, though, since Martin Luther was baptized on 11. November.

There is at least one saint assigned to every day of the calendar, but some Namenstage are more significant than others and recognized with various traditions or rituals. One that's known throughout the western world is, of course, Nikolaustag, or St. Nick's Day, which is celebrated on 6. December. There's a really lovely story behind the tradition of hanging stockings by the fire that are filled in the night with treats, which I'll write about at the appropriate time.

In Germany Martinstag is (somewhat surprisingly) not a holiday, but it is recognized and celebrated by many. Like the American holiday of Thanksgiving, a bird is the traditional beast to be consumed, but while Americans prepare and eat turkey, Germans cook and serve goose. And of course there's a story behind that!

"Die Gänse haben St. Martin verraten, dafür müssen sie jetzt braten."

St. Martin of Tours was a Roman soldier who was baptized when he was an adult and became a monk. When the citizens of Tours wanted to make him a bishop, he did not feel up to the task and ran away. While his pursuers were hot on his tail, he hid in a barn full of geese thinking they'd be thrown off the trail. Unfortunately the noisy beasts weren't too thrilled with their visitor who was stepping on their food and stinking up the joint, and they honked their disapproval and annoyance. His goose was therefore cooked, as they say, and he sheepishly accepted the ordination.

The quote above is "Because the geese St. Martin betrayed, today they land upon our plate." (I tried to make it rhyme, but it sounds much better in German.)

"Run, damn you! RUN!"*
November also happens to be the time of year when geese are fattened and ready for eatin'. Not everyone could afford a fattened goose, so it was also common to serve a duck or chicken. And not everyone wants to eat goose. It's a very fatty bird, with about 30% fat to its meat. In its defense, though, it's also high in protein and minerals such as iron, magnesium, and zink. M has had goose on his Namenstag before, but I have never tried it and don't recall ever seeing it on a menu in the U.S.. Last year we had dinner at our favorite restaurant, where they served a special Martinstag menu of Martinsgans. It was delcious! (We're hoping to dine there again tonight, but I since I forgot to call for a reservation, I might be baking a bird myself tonight. Hopefully they'll still have a table available, but I'm not going to bet on it.)  Update: They do have a table! My bird's back in the freezer (and by bird, I mean two duck legs).

And here it is. Goose, stuffing, dumplings, roasted chestnuts, Rotkohl, and gravy.

For those who want more history and tradition...the Martinsgans was served traditionally on 11. November as the last big meal before the Advent fasting time. At the end of Advent, goose was served again - on Christmas Eve. If I'm not mistaken, the "Christmas Goose" is mentioned near the happy end of the well-known Dickens tale. Nowadays approximately 10 million geese land in an oven or pan between Martinstag and Christmas.°

In the Middle Ages the traditional Christmas dinner was a Schweinbraten - pork roast. Why was this replaced by goose? The most popular explanation is that Queen Elizabeth I was in the middle of a Christmas feast of goose when she received the news that her navy had defeated the Spanish Armada. She took this as a good omen and declared the goose as the Christmas Roast in 1588.

I can't end without mentioning another Martinstag tradition that those of you living in Germany may see in your villages - the Martinsritt. Elementary school children make paper lanterns (with candles inside) in school and then gather - usually in the early evening - with their teachers, classmates, and parents, and parade through the streets singing songs about St. Martin. There is almost always a rider dressed in a Roman costume with red cloak on a horse leading the procession. The parade ends with a bonfire and snacks for all. This tradition reminds people of the story of St. Martin before his conversion, when he was a Roman soldier who came upon a poor man freezing in the cold winter. Martin stopped his horse, split his cloak down the center with his sword, and gave the homeless man half of his cloak to keep warm. The next night as Martin lay sleeping, he saw Jesus in his dream wearing the half of the cloak he had given the homeless man. This story (yes, told even in public schools) helps to teach young children the value of sharing and being kind to strangers.

My daughter The rider is wearing a red sweatshirt instead of a red cloak,
but this will have to do until I actually witness a Martinsritt.
Had I known of this story when I was a child, I would have asked my dad to tell it to me over and over again. My mom would have felt touched that I wanted to hear a story about sharing, but really it would have been because there was a horse in it.

11:11 (am) on November 11th every year is also the official start of "the Fifth Season", or Fasching. Things don't get nutty until the weeks before Ash Wednesday, but the season has begun nonetheless.

°Source: "Dem heiligen Martin zu Ehren." Schwäbisches Tageblatt; Südwest-Presse/Neckar-Chronik. 31. October, 2014.


  1. I've just realised I have no idea whether Switzerland celebrate St Martin's Day. I don't think I've ever eaten goose to celebrate it though.

    I'm so glad I didn't have to put up with all the drunk people on the train going to Cologne for the start of Karneval yesterday! That was always the worst part of my commute.

    1. I don't blame you! Despite the popularity of Fasnet around here, Martinstag seems to be more important than the official start of "the fifth season". I'm glad about that as well - crowds of drunk people are the worst.

      The meal was delicious again last night (and we brought home leftovers rather than stuffing ourselves), but I don't need goose more than once a year. It's a nice tradition we'll probably continue, though I won't try to cook it myself.