How Hungary celebrates Saint Martin’s Day

November 11, 2013


Hungarians celebrate St. Martin’s Day (Márton napja) on November 11th.

St. Martin of Tours was a Roman soldier who became a Christian missionary and was eventually made Bishop of Tours.  He is the patron saint of France.  He is also the patron saint of soldiers, wool-weavers, tailors, beggars, winemakers, innkeepers, and geese.

St. Martin’s Day is celebrated throughout Hungary with huge feasts.  According to Hungarian folklore the more one eats and drinks on this day, the stronger and healthier one will be.  Historically, it was on this day that Hungarians would slaughter, cook, and eat the goose they had been fattening up.

Popular Hungarian sayings about this day include:

“Aki Márton napon libát nem eszik, egész éven át éhezik.”

“If you don’t eat goose on Martin’s Day you’ll starve all year.”

“Márton napján, ha a lúd jégen jár, akkor karácsonykor vízben poroszkál.”

“If on St. Martin’s Day the goose walks on ice it will be waddling in water on Christmas.”

“Ha Márton fehér lovon jön, enyhe tél, ha barnán, kémény tél várható.”

“If Martin arrives on a white horse expect a mild winter. If Martin arrives on a brown horse a harsh winter can be expected.”

St. Martin’s Day being the last day flocks should be grazed in open pasture before winter, shepherds would give the flocks’ owners bundles of twigs, known as St. Martin’s faggots, in exchange for which they would receive gifts from the owner.  Knocking on the owner’s window the shepherds would say:

“Jó estét kívánok! Elhoztuk Szent Márton püspök vesszeit…Úgy szaporodjanak a sertések, mint ennek ahány ága boga van!”

“I wish you a good evening! We’ve brought with us St. Martin’s faggot… May your pigs give birth to as many piglets as there are twigs in this faggot!”

The owners would then present the shepherd with gifts of money and, in some parts of Hungary, lard, bacon, and sausage.  The faggot was then placed at the entrance of the pigpen for use in spring when the animals would be driven out to pasture.

St. Martin’s Day is also the day for tasting that year’s wine.

“A bornak szent Márton a bírája.”

“The wine is judged by Saint Martin.”

In Baranya it was forbidden to wash clothes or hang clothes out to dry on St. Martin’s Day lest one’s cattle died. Locals used the weather on St. Martin’s Day to predict the weather for the following March.

In Dunaszerdahely November 11th was the day the local community held its famous St. Martin’s Day market.

In the Kalotaszeg villages of Hungary families were expected to decide which maid to hire by St. Martin’s Day.

The life of Martin of Tours

Martin of Tours (316-397) was the Bishop of Tours. Born in Szombathely, Hungary (known as Pannonia in Roman times), Martin spent his childhood in Italy and the greater part of his adult life in France. His father was a senior officer in the Roman Imperial Horse Guard who, not long after the birth of his son, was stationed in northern Italy in what is now known as Pavia.

Acting against the wishes of his parents Martin began attending the Christian church at the age of ten. The son of a wealthy military officer, Martin was required to join the cavalry when he turned fifteen.  He was stationed in Gaul in the vicinity of modern-day Amiens, France.

"La charité de saint Martin" by Louis Anselme Longa
“La charité de saint Martin” by Louis Anselme Longa

Legend has it that as Martin rode up to the gates of Amiens one day he met a beggar. Cutting his own cloak in two with his sword, he gave the beggar half of his cloak. When Martin went to sleep that night he dreamt that Jesus was wearing the cloak and that Jesus told the angels, “Here is Martin, the Roman soldier who is not baptised; he has clad me.”

He became a conscientious objector and refused to fight in a battle against the Gauls, saying “I am a soldier of Christ. I cannot fight.” Charged with cowardice and jailed he was eventually released once hostilities were over.

Martin made his way to Tours where he became a disciple of Hilary of Poitiers. When Hilary was exiled Martin returned to Italy, converting people along the way.  According to legend it was on this trip that he confronted the Devil himself.

According to his biographer Martin dreamt that he should return home. Embarking from Milan he crossed the Alps and made his way to Pannonia where he converted his mother and others. He was unable to convert his father.

In the years to follow Martin frequently found himself at odds with early leaders of the Christian Church. After a confrontation with the archbishop of Milan, Martin sought shelter on the island of Gallinara off the coast of Italy where he lived the solitary life of a hermit.

When Hilary return to his see in 361 Martin joined him and together they established a monastery, Europe’s oldest.  He spent the next decade preaching throughout western Gaul.

His popularity with local communities caused him to be made Bishop of Tours In 371.  Summoned to Tours under false pretenses, legend has it Martin reluctantly allowed himself to be consecrated bishop.  Upon realizing the true purpose of his summons to Tours, Martin is said to have hidden in a barn full of geese whose frantic cackling betrayed his location.

As Bishop of Tours Martin went about establishing monasteries and parishes. He extended the reach of his episcopate from Touraine to distant towns including Chartes, Paris, Autun, and Vienne, where legend has it he cured a man of an eye disease.

Martin died in Candes-Saint-Martin in central France in 397.

Happy St. Martin’s Day!