San Martino day in Italy: facts & traditions

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San Martino day is celebrated on November 11st, day of his burial in Tours, France.

The story of San Martino

San Martino was born in Hungary. His father, war veteran, named him Martino in honour of Mars, god of war. He and his family moved to Pavia, in Lombardy, when he was a kid. Like all the sons of veterans he was forced to join the army. So he was given a horse and a slave and he was sent to Gallia (France) as a member of the imperial guard in Amiens. One of his duties was the guard shift. During a shift in a icy winter night he met a beggar whit nothing to protect him from the cold. So he cut his cloak in two and shared with him. The air suddenly became warmer, like in Summer.

Summer of Saint Martin

In fact, what you call Indian Summer, in Italy is called “Estate di San Martino” (Summer of Saint Martin), a period of unusually warm weather at the beginning of November, when wine barrels are opened to taste new wine accompanied by roasted chestnuts.

Anyway, during the night Martino dreamt of Jesus wearing half of his cloak and saying to some angels: “Martino, Roman soldier, dressed me.” When he woke up, the cloak was intact. This episode stroke a chord with him and he decided to convert to Christianity.

San Martino day
San Martino day

Fare San Martino

In northern Italy, especially in agricultural areas, all contracts used to end (and the new ones to start) on November 11. For this reason, it was not unusual on that day to run into people moving from a farm to another one with over packed carriages. This tradtition was called “to do Saint Martin”, fare San Martino. In some dialects of the North “fare San Martino” retains the meaning of moving.

San Martino and Geese

There’s a connection between Saint Martin and geese. According to tradition, he wasn’t that enthusiastic of becoming Bishop of Tours, since he would have preferred remaining a simple monk. So he tried to hide himself. Problem is that he chose very poorly. In fact he hid in a geese shed. The geese revealed his presence by honking and in the end he couldn’t avoid to become bishop.

In my area there’s also the custom of eating goose on Saint Martin’s day. November is in fact the period of geese. When agriculture was the main activity, and people were more religious, they used to observe a period of moderation before Christmas. So, on November 11, day before that period, they consumed a last abundant and nourishing meal, based on goose.

These days I spotted many restaurants in Veneto promoting delicious goose-based menu.

Traditions in Italy

On San Martino day there are many different traditions celebrating the Saint, depending on the region of Italy. For example:

  • Villages of Alto Adige: there are procession with lanterns lead by a man dressed like St Martin and riding a horse.
  • Palermo: people prepare Saint Martin cookies.
  • In Lecce, Apulia, people gather for sumptuous family lunches and dinner.

San Martino day in Venice

Dolce di San Martino
Dolce di San Martino

In the Venice area people prepare or buy the “dolce di San Martino”, a shortcut pasty biscuit with the shape of the Saint riding a horse, decorated with egg white frosting (nowadays mostly chocolate) and candies. Kids go from house to house wearing a paper crown, singing and reciting a doggerel and playing instruments like pots and pans in exchange for coins or candies. This tradition was at risk, but it seems to be in vogue again. The cake of Saint Martin has been exported also in Padova and other areas of the Veneto region. You can find it in every pastry shop.

If you pay attention, in the photo below  you will see the writing “San Martin” and not “San Martino”. That’s a peculiarity of Venetian dialect. Many words ending in na, ne, ni, no… well, we change them. We remove the vowel. So Martino [mahr -TEE -noh]becomes Martin [mahr -TEEN], as… let’s see other Italian words… ah! Bread. In Italian is pane [PAH -neh], in Veneto is pan [PAHN]. Tomorrow, domani [doh-MAH-nee] is doman [doh- MAHN].

The kids’ doggerel

I warn you, as many doggerels, it doesn’t make much sense

San Martin xe nda’ in soffita                                             San Martino has gone to the attic
a trovar nonna Rita.                                                             to find grandma Rita.
Nonna Rita no ghe gera,                                                     Grandma Rita wasn’t there,
San Martin col cuo par tera.                                             San Martino with his butt on the floor.
Ecol nostro sacchetin,                                                          And with our little bag,
cari signori xe San Martin.                                                 dear sirs it’s San Martin!

Dolce di San Martino
Dolce di San Martino

The fog to the bare hills, La nebbia agli irti colli

San Martino is also a famous poem by poet Giosué Carducci. I think every Italian knows at least the first verses. It was a poem we had to learn by heart and recite at primary school. I hated it. I really hated it. Only many years later I appreciated the metaphor of the “flocks of black birds like exiled thoughts”, but at that time the whole meaning was obscure to me. Carducci used words I never pronounced in my whole life after that time at school. How could I understand them when I was like 9? You can find a translation of the poem at literaryjoint.blogspot.it

Many Italians brushed the verses up after a popular Italian comedian, singer and presenter, Fiorello, made his singed version of the poem, entitled La nebbia agli irti colli. It was horrible. Sorry, Fiorello! Fiorello is funny, nice and he sings very well, but that song…. oh my!


What about you? Do you celebrate San Martino day?