Celebrate Martinmas Day: The Catholic Thanksgiving
As the classical world faded away and a new Christian culture was built up, a few saints stood out to point a new way forward. Great soldiers and ascetics for Christ became popular patrons against evil: St. Michael, St. John the Baptist, and one of our Battles in Autumn saints: the bishop St. Martin of Tours. Many churches and monasteries were named after him, including a chapel at the great monastery of St. Benedict at Monte Cassino. Martin was a soldier, serving in the cavalry that defended the Roman Emperor, and, upon his retirement, he became a servant of the true king. A staunch defender of the orthodox faith of the Catholic Church, he stood strong against the Arians and overturned the remaining idols of central France, where he established many churches and monasteries.
Martin’s feast day on November 11th marks the turning of the year and was a major Fall feast day in the Middle Ages, serving as a Thanksgiving day at the end of the fall harvest. Animals were slaughtered for the winter provisions, with a special beef dish prepared for the feast. In addition, serving goose became common (no turkey before America was discovered) as a symbol of Martin himself, who hid among the geese in a vain effort to hide from being made bishop. The first wine of the harvest was also available, making it a day of revelry before the austerities of winter and Advent.
One of the best books on traditional Catholic customs, Fr. Francis Weiser’s Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs offers a description of the importance of the day for medieval Christians:
The most common, and almost universal, harvest and thanksgiving celebration in medieval times was held on the Feast of Saint Martin of Tours (Martinmas) on November 11. It was a holiday in Germany, France, Holland, England and in central Europe. People first went to Mass and observed the rest of the day with games, dances, parades, and a festive dinner, the main feature of the meal being the traditional roast goose (Martin’s goose). With the goose dinner they drank “Saint Martin’s wine,” which was the first lot of wine made from the grapes of the recent harvest. Martinmas was the festival commemorating filled barns and stocked larders, the actual Thanksgiving Day of the Middle Ages. Even today it is still kept in rural sections of Europe, and dinner on Martin’s Day would be unthinkable without the golden brown, luscious Martin’s goose.
Like other Fall days, it was also one on which people tried to figure out the upcoming Winter weather pattern (akin to Groundhog day for Spring today):
‘If ducks do slide at Martinmas
At Christmas they will swim;
If ducks do swim at Martinmas
At Christmas they will slide’
For us, Martinmas Day can recapture lost festivity in the Fall. For Catholic veterans, it also offers additional meaning as a feast of a model soldier. For all of us, it can become a second Thanksgiving day, rooted in faith and the traditions of our ancestors.
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Dr. Staudt holds a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Ave Maria University and B.A. and M.A. in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas (St. Paul, MN). He serves as Director of Content for Exodus and as Visiting Associate Professor at the Augustine Institute in Denver. He was previously the Associate Superintendent for the Archdiocese of Denver. He has founded a Catholic school and served as a DRE in two parishes and as Director of Catholic Studies at the University of Mary. He is the author of How the Eucharist Can Save Civilization (TAN), Restoring Humanity: Essays on the Evangelization of Culture (Divine Providence Press) and The Beer Option: Brewing a Catholic Culture Yesterday & Today (Angelico Press). His editing experience includes six years as the managing editor of the journal Nova et Vetera and the books Renewing Catholic Schools: How to Regain a Catholic Vision in a Secular Age (Catholic Education Press) and The University and the Church: Don J. Briel’s Essays on Education (Cluny Media).
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