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Saint Martin of Tours | Pagan traditions of a Christian holiday

According to the Calendar of Saints, the 11th of November celebrates Saint Martin of Tours, a viral event in the west side of Europe. In fact, throughout our peninsula, festivals and village festivals have been organized for centuries. However, like many Christian holidays, even the one dedicated to protecting travelers and soldiers has its roots in our Celtic past. Some many pagan symbols and traditions can be traced in the cult and celebrations linked to Saint Martin of Tours.

The actual historical figure, Martin of Tours, was born between 315 and 317 AD in Pannonia (today’s Hungary). His father, an officer in the Roman army, consecrated him to the god Mars, naming him precisely Martin in honor of him, and pushed him to undertake a military career.

Representation of Saint Martin of Tours

saint martin of tours



As previously mentioned, the symbols and traditions of Saint Martin of Tours hide many links with the Celtic world. Gaul was the first and most significant place of diffusion of the cult of this saint. Consequently, the Christian rites did not replace the Celtic ones but mixed with them. It was hybridizing them and giving them new meanings, which were not new at all.

First of all, Saint Martin’s day coincides with the end of the Samhain celebrations, the Celtic New Year. From which Halloween takes its origins.

From October 31 to November 11, the Celts practiced various rites related to the dead and the end of the harvest. It was a moment of recollection in which the veil between the living and the dead was thinner. Winter had now arrived, reminding people of life’s brevity, which was to be exalted to its maximum. It was time to get together, drink and feast.

The Ancient Of Wayfarers

Another pagan element associated with Saint Martin of Tours is the theme of the wanderer, of which the saint is the protector. In the episode of the “cloak,” Martin helps a poor traveler in difficulty, who turns out to be Christ himself. The fact that Jesus was hiding in disguise is common in Christian folk stories. However, this tradition did not originate in the Christian world.

In the pagan universe, different deities blended in with humans and often put them to the test. The most famous is undoubtedly Odin, the father of the Norse gods.

With a cloak, hat, and spear used as a staff, Odin traveled the world and was therefore considered the protector of travelers. For example, Grímnir resented himself to King Geirrøðr in search of hospitality. The sovereign, however, a cruel and suspicious man, tortured him for fun. When Odin revealed his true nature, Geirrøðr panicked and rushed to free him, fell, and stabbed himself with his sword.

Sacred Agricultural Life

The feast of Saint Martin of Tours is intrinsically intertwined with the agricultural world, becoming one of the most critical dates in the peasant calendar. Another was added to the aforementioned ancient traditions during the High Middle Ages. Just November 11 was the date set for the annual renewal of the tenants’ contracts. Therefore, the peasants often moved elsewhere to cultivate new fields in the service of another landowner. From this custom comes the saying “fare Saint Martin of Tours” to say “make a move” or “change job.”

Through the Celtic and peasant traditions, Saint Martin of Tours has always been linked to the cyclical nature of the land. The summer was over, and so was his fatigue, but we had to prepare for winter. It was the perfect time to celebrate before being forced to shut up in the cold.

One of the most popular rites was opening the first barrels and tasting the new wine. An idea of ​​the goliardic (and chaotic) atmosphere of the celebrations is represented by the painting “ Feast of Saint Martin of Tours ” by Pieter Bruegel, the Elder. Another famous saying says, “For Saint Martin of Tours, every must is wine.”

The goose of Saint Martin of Tours

The meat par excellence of Saint Martin of Tours was the goose, its symbolic animal, like the pig for Sant’Antonio Abate. A Celtic and peasant symbol is also assimilated into another story about the saint’s life.

According to tradition, the humble Martino decided to hide in the countryside of Tours to avoid the clamor due to his hiring as bishop since he did not consider himself worthy. However, as he sought adequate shelter, a group of geese began to crow, attracting the villagers and making him discover. Since the geese had reminded him of the duties God was calling him, Martin chose them as his representative animal. Therefore, it was customary to feast on the goose during the feast or on hens and ducks in his absence.

Even before this episode, in this particular period of the year, the goose was still celebrated as a sacred animal in Celtic rites. There is a practical reason for this custom. On the one hand, they used to kill and set aside food reserves to prepare winter supplies. Hunting wild ducks and geese were the norm, as they were easier to find given the migratory period. On the other hand, sacrificing these animals avoided feeding them during the future winter pecuniary period. Therefore, pigs, geese, and ducks were the typical animals to be slaughtered in the autumn.

Divination of Vigil

Even St. Martin’s Eve was not lacking in magic and pagan and esoteric traditions. The custom of November 10 was the exercise of various divination practices to predict births. Marriages and the future of the next harvest. One of the most popular methods in the peasant world was the practice of the saucer to know if a forthcoming marriage was in sight. The technique was straightforward.

Three plates were taken, two of which were filled with water, one cloudy and one clean. While the third was left empty. He, who wanted to know his future,e was blindfolded and placed in front of the dishes. The person himself then chose the word blindly. If he had chosen clean water, he would have married a virgin girl. The cloudy water, on the other hand, represented marriage to a widower. Finally, the empty plate meant that he would never get married.

The Protector of the Horned

By tradition and protector of soldiers, Saint Martin of Tours is also considered the protector of cuckolds, that is, of husbands who are betrayed. For what reason? The reasons are not yet clear, but we can speculate about them. Always drawing heavily from the Celtic world, this was the perfect time to hunt ducks, geese, and deer. To celebrate the fertility that would have fallen asleep with Samhain, the Celts performed propitiatory rites, wearing deer antlers and ox horns. 

They prayed to Cernunnos, the god of fertility and hunting, who embodied the divinization of male animals with horns. His appearance was that of an athletic man with a head adorned with deer antlers. Being also the god of the hunt, however, he was a deity linked to death, which we have seen as the mother theme of this period. 

For this reason, the horns still return in many Italian celebrations for Saint Martin of Tours. In fact, in various parts of our country, on this day,e the famous “ Festa dei Cornuti ” is celebrated. For example, in Santarcangelo di Romagna, Saint Martin of Tours is the patron saint, and the celebration is also known as ” Fiera dei Becchi. ” During the event, on 10 and 11 November, massive horns are hung under the arch in Piazza Ganganelli. According to the legend, if the horns were to move as you pass under them, you would have been betrayed!

You may also want to know.

1. What saint gave his cloak to a beggar?

Saint Martin of Tours is the saint who gave his cloak to a beggar. During his journey, he meets a beggar covered in rags and suffers from the cold. Martino doesn’t think twice, gets off his horse, and cuts the large cloak neatly in two with his sword, giving one of his halves to the old beggar, who thanks him.

2. Why did St Martin become a saint?

St Martin becomes a saint for his holiness and random acts of kindness. He died on November 8, 397, in Candes-Saint-Martin, where he had gone to make peace among the local clergy. This date has become an extraordinary feast throughout the West, thanks to its widespread reputation for holiness and the considerable number of Christians who bore the name of Martin.

3. What is a St Martin’s summer?

The name of St Martin’s summer originates from the mantle tradition, according to which Martin of Tours (which later became San Martino ), on seeing a half-naked beggar suffer the cold during a downpour, gave him half of his cloak; shortly after he met another beggar and gave him the other half of the cover: immediately after, the sky…


Various legends are intertwined around this character, one of the most loved saints in Europe. Indeed the best known is the episode of the “mantle,” which made him the archetype of charity.

According to tradition, in 335, Saint Martin of Tours was on request near the city of Amiens in Gaul (present-day France). During a storm, the Roman soldier met a cold beggar dressed in rags on his patrol. Moved with pity, he cut his sagum, the traditional heavy wool cloak worn by Roman soldiers. And gave him half of it to protect it from the cold.

Then, the snowstorm suddenly ceased, and a hot summer heat hit the area. In this way, God thanked Martin for his generous gesture, and as the soldier had not hesitated to help a stranger in his time of need, he reciprocated by protecting him from the cold at his vault.