Saint Martin of Tours

From a historic perspective, many festivals have religious origin which entwine cultural significance in traditional activities. St. Martin of Tours has always been Taal’s patron saint since 1575 when the basilica was first buit by the Augustinians in San Nicolas. Taal is considered to be the only town in Batangas not destroyed by the ravage of war. People believed miracles were attributed to St. Martin.

Close to the season of “Undas”, the novena in anticipation of November 11 precedes the big event. Steeped in cultural heritage, pilgrims and devotees traditionally gather at the national shrine of St. Martin Basilica for the special prayer service highlighted by the “Luwa” of selected young boys in praise of the patron saint, known as the patron of children and the poor.

Awed by the magnitude of St. Martin’s importance in Europe and most part of the world, it was serendipitous, to witness and celebrate November 11 away from home. On the eve of St. Martin’s day, one of our hosts, the Langers, treated us to Austria’s traditional dish of the season, roasted goose or “Martinigansl” served with aromatic chestnuts, red cabbage and fluffy dumplings. For many people the meal is just as important as Easter and Christmas dinner.

“Martinloben” is celebrated as a collective festival which include art exhibitions, wine tastings and live music. On the night of November 11, children walk in processions carrying lanterns which they made in schools and sing Martin song.

The holiday mood piqued my curiosity why St. Martin became the most familiar and recognizable Christian saints in the Western tradition, thus, the unfolding of his mystery.

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Venerated as the patron saint of France, it was a common belief that St. Martin was French, however in reality, he was of Hungarian descent born to pagan parentage in the year 316. Martin was converted to Christianity at the age of 10. Being the only one in the family who was a Christian, he tried his best to be baptized and made a monk at the age of 12 against the wishes of his parents.

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His father was a senior officer in a unit of a Roman army stationed at Ticinum, now Pavia in Northern Italy where he grew up. Circumstances forced Martin to join the Roman army at the age of 15.

Martin served in the Roman cavalry in Gaul. He strove to lead a humble and upright life in the military, giving away much of his pay to the poor. His generosity led to a life-changing incident when he encountered a man freezing without warm clothing near a gate at the city of Amiens in Gaul. As his fellow soldiers passed by the man, Martin stopped and cut his cloak in two halves with his sword, giving one half to the freezing beggar. That night Martin saw Christ in a dream wearing the half-cloak he had given to the poor man. When he awoke the garment was restored.

Moved by the miracle, Martin knew that the time for him to join the church had arrived. He promptly finished his religious instruction and was baptized at the age of 18. He desired to give his life to God more fully that the profession would allow. He finally petitioned the Roman emperor Julian the Apostate to release him from the army during an invasion by the Germans, but Martin was accused of cowardice.

Martin responded by offering to stand before the enemy forces unarmed and thrust himself into the thickest squadrons of the enemy without fear. Believing he would be protected not by a helmet and buckler but by the sign of the cross.

The display of faith became unnecessary, when the Germans sought peace instead and Martin received his discharge from the military.

After living as a Catholic for some time, Martin traveled to meet Bishop Hilary of Poitiers, a skilled theologian and later canonized saint, who invited Martin to settle at Poitiers in western France. The bishop was impressed by Martin’s dedication to the faith and asked Martin to return to his diocese after his journey back to Hungary to visit his parents. While there, he persuaded his mother, though not his father, to join the Church.

He traveled and preached through Western Gaul and established hermitage in Liguge which was later developed into the Benedictine Liguge Abbey, the oldest monastery in Europe, now called Abbey of St. Martin of Liguge.

During the resulting decade as a monk, Martin became renowned for raising two people from the dead through his prayers. This evidence of his holiness led to his appointment as the third bishop of Tours in the middle of present day France.

According to one version, Martin was reluctant to become bishop that he hid in a barn full of geese but their cackling at his intrusion gave him away to the crowd.

As Bishop of Tours he founded monasteries, educated the clergy, destroyed pagan temples and gave particular attention to the conversion of rural population.

Both the Church and the Roman Empire passed through a time of upheaval during Martin’s time as bishop. Heretics were sentenced to death which Martin opposed along with the Pope.

Even in old age Martin continued to live an austere life focused on the care of souls until his death.

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France believed that their national destiny and all its victories were attributed to St. Martin. The military was linked to his cloak which was the first flag of France to the French tricolor.

When Frenchmen deserted the church in great numbers during the 19th century, the devotion to St. Martin remained. For men serving in the military, Martin of Tours was presented as the masculine model of principled behavior.

Great Britain including Western Europe engaged in a period of fasting that started November 12 which lasted for 40 days later called “Advent” by the church in preparation for Christmas.

In Slovakia, the feast of St. Martin is like a “2nd Birthday” for those named after the saint. Small presents or money are common gifts for this special occasion. Tradition says that if it snow on November 11, then St. Martin comes on a white horse and there will be snow on Christmas day. If it doesn’t snow, then he comes on a dark horse and will not snow on Christmas.

In Germany, the feast is celebrated with a get-together during which a roasted suckling pig is shared with the neighbors. A man on horseback dressed like St. Martin accompanies the children walk in processions carrying lanterns from the church to the public square where Martin bonfire is lit and Martin’s pretzels are distributed.

In Ireland, it is a tradition to sacrifice a cockerel by bleeding it. The blood is sprinkled on the four corners of the house.

In Sicily people eat anise biscuits washed down with Moscato, or sweet Italian dessert wine.

In Prague, they pour the first of the St. Martin’s wines at 11:11a.m. a young wine from the recent harvest. Restaurants offer special menus featuring the traditional roast goose.

Children in Netherlands, as soon as it’s dark, go door to door with paper lanterns singing “Sinte Sinte Maarten” hoping to receive candy in return, similar to Halloween.

St. Martin of Tours has historically been among the most beloved saints in the history of Europe. His preaching across the continent converted thousands to the faith. Miracles were attributed to him since his death in 397 making him the most popular saints of the Roman Catholic Church.

*credits to the owners of the pictures*

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