November 11, 2020 – Saint Martin’s Day is today celebrated across Croatia, a time to be thankful for the successful harvest that will tide you through winter. We take a look at Saint Martin, his close connection to Croatia and the distinct traditions here that mark his day
Saint Martin or Martin of Tours is one of the most recognised of all Christian saints. He is the patron saint of beggars, wool-weavers and tailors, soldiers, geese and the country of France. He is also the patron saint of innkeepers and winemakers. He is celebrated all over the Christian world on September 11, the day of his burial (Saint Martin died on 8th November, 397, and was buried three days later).
Across Europe, the long-held celebration of Saint Martin’s Day is closely associated with the autumn harvest – in Croatia, particularly the wine harvest in continental regions
The feast of Saint Martin began to be celebrated in France, where he died, before spreading all across Europe and the Christian world. In the northern hemisphere, Saint Martin’s Day coincides with a key time of year. It is the end of harvest time, the beginning of natural winter. It is the time for food to be conserved for the forthcoming colder months, the time for animals to be slaughtered and vegetables to be preserved. It is also the traditional time that the year’s first new beer and wine first become ready to drink. Depending on the local crops and climate of the country, Saint Martin’s Day can be associated with different foods and drinks, but with similarities occurring throughout Europe in particular. In the great winemaking country of Croatia, Saint Martin’s Day is often most closely linked too that particular agricultural endeavour.
Saint Martin depicted in Louis Anselme Longa’s, La Charité de Saint-Martin Huile sur toile
Saint Martin feels at home in Croatia. And well he might. Martin of Tours was born less than 90 kilometres from today’s Croatian border, in Pannonia, present-day Hungary. His father was a tribune in the Roman army and, being the son of such, Martin was required to follow in his footsteps. At the age of 18, he was stationed at in Amiens, present-day France, probably as an elite cavalry bodyguard of the Emperor, which accompanied him on his travels around the Empire. So important did Martin become to the spread of early Christianity in the region, that many details about his life were recorded by a biographer, Sulpicius Severus, who lived within Martin’s lifetime.
A previous celebration of Saint Martin’s Day in Daruvar © TZ Daruvar
While Martin was still a soldier, it is said he experienced a vision. One day as he was approaching the city of Amiens, he met a beggar. In the vision, Martin instinctively cut his military cloak in two, so he could share his clothing with the poor man. That night, Martin dreamed Jesus was wearing the half-cloak he had given away.
Martin’s cloak became a famous relic preserved in the Marmoutier Abbey near Tours. During the Middle Ages, it was carried by the king into battle and used as a holy relic upon which oaths were sworn. When it was not in use, so important was the cloak that it was assigned its own military priest who would watch over it. He was called a cappellanu, his title taken from the Italian word capella, meaning cloak. This is the origin of the word chaplain that we use today to describe a priest assigned to the military, and for the word chapel, meaning small church, which comes from the building assigned to house Martin’s cloak.
Another depiction of Martin splitting his cloak for the beggar – Saint Martin and the Beggar by Anthony van Dyck
Opinion about the length of time Martin spent in the army vary, as he is said to have renounced violence in keeping with the Christian faith he had already adopted before he joined. However long he spent in the army, it is to a life of religious devotion he is said to have entered upon his departure from the ranks. He travelled back home and is said to have converted his mother in Pannonia to Christianity, before returning to present-day France with his mentor, Hilary of Poitiers, where he helped establish a building that would become the old known monastery in Europe, Ligugé Abbey. From there, he toured the region preaching Christianity, spreading his religion and, perhaps unwittingly, also his name.
In this picture, the local clergy bless the full harvest in Dugo Selo on Saint Martin’s Day © Grad Dugo Selo
Being a renowned Holy man, Martin was asked to attend a sick man in the city of Tours. The request was a ruse. Christians within the city wanted to have Martin as their bishop and had lured him there. Reticent to take up the position, Martin is said to have run away and hidden among a barn full of geese to avoid his persuaders. This is where the association of Martin and geese comes from. In many countries, the cooking of a goose is traditional on Saint martin’s Day, including Croatia. Not everyone has always been able to afford such a grand bird – poorer families have traditionally served duck, turkey or, more recently, chicken on Saint Martin’s Day. The traditional accompaniment in Croatia is layers of pasta known as mlinci.
Mlinci, sheets of thin pasta, traditionally served as an accompaniment to a roasted bird in Croatia, especially on Saint Martin’s Day
As bishop of Tours, Martin had a much greater responsibility and area to minister over. In these early days for Christianity, it was all too common for force and the military to become involved in conversion. But, Martin had renounced violence. He used alternate methods – the power of persuasion. Martin is said to have been such a formidable opponent in discussion that royalty refused to grant him an audience for fear he would inevitably leave with the terms he sought. He often campaigned for the forgiveness and freedom of prisoners, even those whose religious views he opposed.
Some of Croatia’s best white wines come from Kutjevo in Slavonia – it’s no surprise to see them go big for Saint Martin’s Day © Kutjevo doo
From the late 4th century to the late Middle Ages, a 40-day period of fasting starting the day after Saint Martin’s Day was observed over much of Christian Europe. This long period eventually relaxed and receded, becoming the period known as Advent – the time of spiritual preparation for Christmas. However, the great feast just before the fasting remained – Saint Martin’s Day.
A typical scene from St Martin’s Day in Medimurje © Visit Medimurje
In Croatia, Saint Martin is the patron saint of Beli Manastir in Baranja, Virje in Koprivnica–Križevci County and Čepinski Martinac in Slavonia. Each have a church named after Saint Martin. These are far from the only places where Saint Martin’s Day is a significant day. In Istria, as work in vineyards would come to an end, winemakers would often come together to taste the fruits of their labour together. Saint Martin’s day is celebrated across multiple days there, from village to village, and tradition holds that the new wine most liked on Saint Martin’s Day will be the best wine next year.
Celebrating Saint Martin’s Day is a long-held tradition in Croatia, as this old photo from Požega City Museum attests
Northern and eastern continental Croatia have an extremely strong reputation for producing white wine. It is their harvest which most closely coincides with Saint Martin’s Day, so it’s little surprise to see it marked so significantly in these regions. In particular, Sveti Martin na Muri in Međimurje, Požega and Kutjevo in Slavonia, Daruvar in Bjelovar-Bilogora County, Velika Gorica, Sveti Ivan Zelina and Dugo Selo in Zagreb County, Sveti Ivan Zelina are big fans of Martinje. But, anywhere that grows wine is likely to mark the day.
Turkey and mlinci is a dish commonly served on Saint Martin’s Day in Croatia. Both the turkey and mlinci of the Zagorje region are protected by the EU for their distinct place of origin © Maja Danica Pecanic / Croatian National Tourist Board
Within these regions, in particular, the folk custom of ‘Baptising’ the wine, to purify it, is a part of proceedings. In many places, this is even done by a real priest. The ceremony frequently takes place on town squares and is enthusiastically attended by locals. After the lighthearted formalities, the celebrations are usually extended with food, music and, of course, wine.
Another scene from a previous Saint Martin’s in Daruvar © Grad Daruvar
Outside of continental regions, the island of Korčula is one of the few – if not the only – place in Dalmatia where Saint martin’s Day is seriously celebrated. The party there starts the night before, with children making a procession with lanterns. This is a commonplace way to celebrate Saint Martin’s Day in The Netherlands, some parts of Germany and Belgium. Indeed, so significant is the day in western Flanders, Belgium, that children receive their annual gifts on Saint Martin’s Day instead of December 25th. They don’t go that far on Korčula, but they do make special foods for the occasion and celebrate saint Martin’s Day, like many places in Croatia, with joyous song and dance.
© Kutjevo doo
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