Martinmas & Old Samhain

Pope Martin I (649-654 CE) established Martinmas as an important Church festival, and it is probable that it was an attempt to absorb and Christianise earlier Pagan end of harvest/coming of winter traditions. If we want to find the folk customs of the start of winter, we have to look at Martinmas on 11 November rather than Samhain on 1 November, as most of the old coming of winter customs were celebrated on this date. The confusion comes from the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in Britain and Ireland in 1752 when eleven days were ‘dropped’ from the calendar to make it astronomically correct, so this is the real natural point of year Samhain would have fallen, and some witches (such my coven) celebrate on this date, Old Samhain.

Martinmas was considered the first day of winter for all practical purposes for, as the Germans said, ‘St Martin comes riding on a white horse’, alluding to the coming winter snows. (Certainly, after we celebrated Samhain Old Style last year, St Martin came riding in on his white horse, as it snowed as soon as we had finished.) After the holiday, women moved their work indoors for the season, and men turned from agricultural work to other crafts. In areas of England, France and Germany, leases ended at Martinmas, rents were due, and servants left households in search of new employment.

The feast day celebrated the end of the harvest and its bounty, the time when the autumn seeding was completed, when fattened animals were slaughtered before winter grazing became scarce, and when the newly-produced wine was ready for drinking. Indulging in large quantities of food and drink played a central role in the festival, and in France an upset stomach caused by too much food and drink is still known as mal de Saint Martin, or ‘Saint Martin’s sickness’. People who got drunk on Martinmas were often called ‘Martinmen’, as were those who squandered their resources in riotous living.

In his eighth century chronicles, St. Bede (c. 672-735) noted that the Anglo-Saxon term for November was Blot Monath, or ‘Blood Month’, in reference to the customary slaughtering of animals that took place during that month. Doubtless some were giving in offering to the Gods, the rest used as food stuffs for the cold months ahead. In more recent centuries, German farmer’s almanacs called November Slachtmaand or ‘Slaughter Month’. In Western Europe, Martinmas was the traditional day for slaughtering livestock before grazing became scarce in the winter, making it an unusual opportunity for most people to eat fresh meat, as well as the time to cure meat for the coming season and to make sausages and puddings from the offal. These were then cured for the winter by being smoked and dried in the chimney. Families often clubbed together at Martinmas to form a ‘mart’ to buy a cow or other animal, which was butchered and black puddings and sausages made. [1]  An old English saying was “his Martinmas will come as it does to every hog,” meaning ‘he will get his comeuppance’ or ‘everyone must die’.

Throughout eastern and western Europe, it was traditional to invite friends and acquaintances to ‘eat the goose’ on St Martin’s Eve or on St Martin’s Day, and in many places it still is. In Hungary, for example, this was the day to slaughter and eat the goose a family had been fattening up, and the more a person ate and drank at Martinmas, the stronger and healthier they would be. According to one Hungarian saying “if you don’t eat goose on Martin’s Day you’ll starve all year”, a sentiment shared in many other places.

In the past, great bonfires roared on Martinmas in Germany and the Netherlands, so much so that in the fifteenth century, the festival acquired the nickname Funkentagor ‘Spark Day’. Young people leaped through the bonfire flames and danced about them, and the ashes were strewn on the fields to make them fertile. In places, little candles were placed in floating nutshells on rivers. In later days, people continued jump over lit candles set on the parlour floor in northern Germany. 

Martinmas also absorbed some of the winter bear customs. The Martin Bear or Straw Bear is a well-known figure in folk tradition, and still appears in places such as Germany, Austria, England, Ireland, Poland and even in North America in areas with strong Germanic traditions. Straw Bears are generally seen as good-luck bringers who appear from the beginning of November to the beginning of February – the period of the solar winter. Pagan antecedents or shamanic traditions are often claimed for such performances. Even today, in many parts of Europe, on St Martin’s Day, a man appears dressed as St Martin, accompanied by a bear-like guiser. In Germany, the figure is called Pelzmärte, which might mean ‘Furry Martin’ or ‘Martin with a Fur Coat’ or ‘Skin Martin’. [2]

While Martinmas customs continue in some parts of Europe, in Britain, most of them have died out, subsumed in the Remembrance Day observances and parades which commemorate the members of the armed forces who have died in war. It was begun in 1919, and the date chosen because the hostilities of the First World War ceased on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, 1918. A serendipitously suitable date on which to remember the dead.

My coven celebrates Samhain on the Old Style date, generally renting a cottage for a week long retreat where we can devote ourselves to meditations, discussions, spellwork and ritual, as well as visiting local sacred sites and shrines. One thing we always do is to visit a cave, the dark and damp underworld womb of the Goddess where it is impossible not to reflect on cycles of creation far vaster and slower in evolution than our own short lives.  Fossils of extinct species remind us that nothing is permanent, that expressions of life evolve and pass away to emerge in another form.

© Anna Franklin, 2020


[1] Hone’s Everyday Book, online at https://archive.org/details/everydaybookorgu01hone/page/n10, accessed 20.11.19

[2] Philippe Walter, Christianity, the Origins of a Pagan Religion, Inner Traditions, Rochester, 2003

Author: annafranklinblog

Anna Franklin is the High Priestess of the Hearth of Arianrhod, which runs teaching circles, a working coven, and the annual Mercian Gathering, a Pagan camp which raises money for charity. She regularly speaks at conferences, moots and workshops around the country. She is the author of many books on witchcraft and Paganism, including the popular Pagan Ways Tarot, Sacred Circle Tarot, The Fairy Ring, Herb Craft, Magical Incenses and Oils, Personal Power, A Romantic Guide to Handfasting, Familiars, The Oracle of the Goddess, Hearth Witch, The Path of the Shaman and The Hearth Witch’s Compendium. Anna’s books have been translated into nine languages.

2 thoughts on “Martinmas & Old Samhain”

  1. Fascinating, thank you. It’s a pity that so many of these customs have been lost — though they still have a straw bear at Whittlesey in Cambridgeshire.

    St Martin was also famous for giving half his cloak to a beggar, which seems to be the story depicted in your featured image.

    I’ve often wondered about the Pagan antecedents of Michaelmas too. There are Michaelmas daisies (very similar to the lovely asters that appear in southern Ontario around Michaelmas). And there’s the tradition that you shouldn’t eat blackberries after 29th September (Michaelmas) because the devil spits on them — presumably out of pique at having been bested by the Archangel Michael.

    I read somewhere that 29th September was a feast of Odin.

    Liked by 1 person

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