Memories of St Martin’s Day | Cardinale Montano for America Daily

The time of year when the nights grow steadily longer has arrived. Here in the Northeast at least, it seems that the long hot days of summer passed by quickly,  and the brilliant array of colorful Autumn foliage has also swiftly come and gone. Suddenly, it is November. 

By now, most of the trees are bare and what leaves remain on the branches will soon also fall gently to the ground. 

Firewood has been stacked, leaves raked, and gardens put to bed. The bulk of the Fall harvest has been completed on our local farms and, most mornings, we will wake to find a shimmering layer of frost covering the ground. What remains in the fields – the winter squash, late kale and such – will now be collected and perhaps winter wheat planted, before the snow flies. These annual tasks of life in the country seem to ease the bittersweet transition of seasons with a comforting rhythm before we enter a season rich with festivals and tradition.

 On a particularly cold and windy night about 1700 years ago, a young Roman horse soldier by the name of Martin came across a beggar at the city gates of Amiens, France. The poor man sat huddled on the ground, barely clothed against the bitter cold, shivering in the only thin and tattered rags he owned. His feet were bare, his lips, blue. 

Martin, taking pity, drew up his horse and dismounted. 

Pulling off the thick, warm, woolen cloak he wore, he quickly drew his sword and cut the cloak in two. 

Gently, Martin draped one half over the poor man’s shoulders and putting the remaining half back on himself again, mounted his horse, and rode on. 

The following night as he lay sleeping, Christ appeared to Martin in a dream surrounded by light and wearing the part of the cloak which he had given to the stranger. When he awoke, Martin saw that his cloak had been miraculously made whole again.  

Martinmas is still celebrated in many countries across Europe every year on Nov. 11th, in honor of St. Martin of Tours, the soldier who in an act of compassion had divided his cloak in two and saved the life of a stranger, in the cold.

Soon after his experience of the vision following this deed, Martin left the army to further serve Christ. He continued to help the poor and outcast and devoted his life to missionary work. Later, longing for a peaceful life of prayer, he became a monk. Martin’s lifelong dedication to establishing Christianity in France led him, though unwillingly, to be appointed Bishop of Tours. St. Martin was named a patron saint of beggars, outcasts, and soldiers. 

There will be much feasting on this day, and people will gather together at bonfires. Lanterns will be lit and carried in processions through the towns while songs are sung, from door to door. 

Growing up in Hartford, CT in the late 60s early 70s, our German mother and grandmother followed this tradition by making colorful paper lanterns with us on St. Martin’s Day.

That night, the four of us children flanked by our maternal guardians would walk through the neighborhood singing German lantern songs, the candles of our little lanterns throwing specks of glimmering light onto the dark sidewalks. 

No one peering out their windows had a clue what we were doing, but we were too young to be concerned with social awkwardness. We just walked and sang and made sure the candles in our lanterns stayed lit. 

Our soldiers were at war in Vietnam, and the entire world was in political and social upheaval. As odd and unfamiliar as our little enactment of tradition seemed, maybe the twinkling lights of our lanterns brought a spark of peaceful warmth to people’s hearts.

Martinmas lanterns can be seen as symbols of the light we carry deep within our hearts and spirits. That inner light which can sustain us through the darker days of Winter, through the changes in our lives, and of those in the outer world. 

The celebration of St. Martin takes place just before the holiday season begins, and so the light of lanterns carries also in its warmth a reminder of the true nature of giving. The compassionate gesture of sharing from our hearts a part of that inner light, which can bring hope and comfort to another. Just as Martin did when he shared a part of his cloak with a stranger in the bitter cold.

 Even the tiniest of lights shines through the deepest darkness.