Monday, November 10, 2014

The Latvian holiday Mārtiņi and its equivalent across the world

Priecīgus Mārtiņus! (Warning, this is a dense post - but I promise you'll learn about a bunch of really cool holidays and traditions you've probably never heard of before!)

Mārtiņi (Martin's Day) is the name of the festival celebrated in Latvia on November 10th, marking the end of the fall and the beginning of winter. Halfway between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice, in ancient Latvia Mārtiņi marked the passage from veļu laiks (season of the spirits) to ledus laiks (season of ice). By Mārtiņi it was expected that all preparations for winter were finished, such as salting meat and fish, storing the harvest and making preserves. This day also marked the beginning of mumming and sledding, among other winter activities. Mummers, also called ķekatas and budeļi, are costumed and wearing masks, traveling from home to home bringing their blessing, encouraging fertility, and scaring away any evil spirits.

The seasons and their associated deities and symbols - source here

As with many of the ancient Latvian holidays, there are certain ways to tell your fortune for the following year. For example, young, unmarried girls must toss their skirt into the middle of the room before going to bed; the one she dreams picks up the skirt is the one she will marry. Superstitions were also numerous; supposedly to guarantee the health of the horses through the harsh winter a rooster should be killed in the stables. Coincidentally it is tradition to sacrifice a rooster in Ireland as well; the blood was collected and sprinkled on the four corners of the house to bring fortune in the following year.

Everything you might need to know about the holiday can be found in this book

For Latvia’s neighbor to the north, Estonia, Mardipäev symbolizes the merging of Western European customs with local Balto-Finnic pagan traditions. Mardipäev marks the end of the period of All Souls in the Estonian popular calendar - the season when the souls of ancestors were worshiped, which lasted from November 1 to 11th). On this day the end of the agrarian year & autumn is observed, and the beginning of the winter period is celebrated. Children disguise themselves as men and go from door to door singing songs and telling jokes to receive sweets, similar to the processions occurring in Austria, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, where children go through the streets with paper lanterns and candles.

Source here

Historically a widespread custom in Germany on Martinstag was to have a bonfire, called the Martinsfeuer. Still lit in a few cities and villages throughout Europe, it symbolizes the light that holiness brings to the darkness just as St. Martin brought hope to the poor through his good deeds. It is believed that the procession of lanterns replaced the large bonfires over time. Traditional foods include Martinsgans (St. Martin’s goose) and Martinshörnchen, a pastry shaped in the form of a croissant symbolizing the hooves of St. Martin's horse.

Source here

As we see with the German version, the day has blended the pagan with the Christian; the resulting variety of traditions is something we see across the continent. November 11th is the feast day of St. Martin of Tours, honoring the friend of children and patron of the poor. In Slovakia, the Feast of St. Martin is like a 2nd birthday for those named after the saint; they are given small presents or money. However it is also a day of foretelling the future, as if it snows then there will be snow on Christmas. This is a theme that repeats itself in the Czech Republic where the first half of November is the time when it often starts to snow. Czechs roast goose and drink Svatomartinské vino, a young wine from the recent harvest. Wine, a symbol of the harvest, is a recurring theme also; in Slovenia and Croatia the “must” (considered impure and sinful) is baptized and turned into wine, while in Austria Martinloben is celebrated as a harvest festival with wine tastings, art exhibitions and live music.

St. Martin, source here

In Denmark Mortensaften is celebrated with traditional dinners, most often goose as in many other countries on this day, such as Sweden, where the entire day of Mårtensafton is a celebration of the goose. Other Martin’s Day foods abound, such as the rogale croissants in Poland. In Portugal magusto (chestnuts roasted under the embers of the bonfire) and água-pé (an alcoholic beverage which is a byproduct of wine) are consumed, as St. Martin's Day is the celebration of the maturation of the year's wine. However in Spain the goose is replaced by pork, in that St. Martin's Day is the traditional day for slaughtering fattened pigs for the winter. In Switzerland the 5+ hour long Repas du Saint Martin includes all the parts of freshly butchered pigs, while the Auvergne region of France (our home while we lived in Clermont-Ferrand) traditionally hosts horse fairs instead of feasts on this day – bringing us back full circle to the Latvian association of Mārtiņi to horses; on Mārtiņi we pass from the influence of Ūsiņš, the horse deity of summer, to that of Mārtiņš, a winter deity.

The preparation of magusto in Portugal, source here

In the United Kingdom, St. Martin's Day is known as Martinmas, when historically cattle were slaughtered and preserved for the winter. However November 11th in England is now better known for being Remembrance Day, commemorating the end of WWI and honoring those that serve in the military as Veteran’s Day (US) and Armistice Day do.

The American cemetery in Normandy, France

Whatever it may be that you observe, Martinmas or the Danish Mortensdag, Martinpäivä in Finland or the Feast of Saint Martin, I wish you a beautiful day. Although we will be honoring our veterans tomorrow, today we will celebrate Mārtiņi – the first of many, as now we are blessed with a Mārtiņš of our very own, little Vilis Mārtiņš!

The Mārtiņš symbol, source here


  1. This is what I LOVE about Blogging. I learn so much from you Bloggers. SO interesting ---and none of this had I ever heard of... I have several blog friends from different countries and love it when all of them post things about their country/culture... Thanks SO much for sharing all of these celebrations with us.

    1. My pleasure Betsy! Thanks for the comment!

  2. Definitely very informative! (And, gosh, how much time did you spend on research for this post?? ;-))


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