November 11 - The symbolism of peace and togetherness

Armistice Day for some, Veterans' Day for others, Independence Day, Saint Martin's Day, Bonfire Day... the common link is peace and togetherness, the common link is festivals of Lights as Winter replaces Summer. The key word is sharing, equality and common values.

The origin of Veterans' Day is in Armistice Day, the end of the First World War. By the end of 1918, with another cold winter approaching, the Revolutionary forces who had seized power in Berlin at the end of October, aware that the German armed forces on the western front were exhausted, called for peace and the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month was not only a graphically significant day to end the war but was perhaps the earliest opportunity by which to get the Compiègne Peace Treaty drawn up for signature. For some reason, 11/11 was chosen.

São Martinho has a special significance in Europe since on November 11, his Saint's Day, he is celebrated with a festivity in which wine and chestnuts are shared; in Iberia (Spain and Portugal) there is a street party called Magusto. Erroneous versions of the origin of this man and the festivity abound and when we examine further, we see that the Festival of Saint Martin is neither Portuguese, nor is it confined to November 11, neither is Saint Martin of Tours French, nor is magusto a festive meal, but rather, a interesting example of how ancient lore can become customary law, gaining a completely new significance. Where to start?

Saint Martin of Tours

Saint Martin of Tours was actually born in Sabaria, Pannonia (modern Hungary), in 316 AD, the son of a Tribune and commander in the Roman army, into which Martin (Martinius) was forced at 15 years of age, being sent to Gaul (France). It should be said his father was worried about Martin's Christian studies and his adhesion to Christianity and saw in the army a way to Romanise his son. His interference had the opposite effect. On his way, possibly crossing the Alps, Martin, sitting astride a horse, saw a beggar by the roadside. Stopping, Martin cut his cloak in two with his sword, giving half to the beggar. That night Jesus Christ appeared to Martin in a dream, wearing the half of the cloak, thanking him for it. Whether or not the cold autumnal days turned into bright sunshine, this time of year (when there are habitually some days of sunshine in mid-November) is revered in Portugal and elsewhere as Saint Martin's Summer. Perhaps the symbolism comes from the warmth given to the beggar by the sharing of the cloak (See below, Indian Summer).

Martin went on to leave the army the next day and became a disciple of Saint Hilarius, Bishop of Poitiers, who later bequeathed some land to him and Martin, now ordained a deacon, founded Europe's first monastery there. Leading the conversion of many pagans into Christianity, Martin toured France together with his monks founding churches, preaching and practising charity, using his mystical powers to help the poor and heal the sick. When in Tours, the people rose up and acclaimed him Bishop, a position which he was forced to accept against his will. There, he founded the monastery of Marmoutier and his influence by then had spread to large areas of France. He died on November 8, 397 in Candes sur Loire, now Candes-Saint-Martin, at 81 years of age and was buried three days later - November 11, in Tours, after his body was snatched and taken by boat to where it is buried today. It is said that the river banks flowered as his body passed.

Due to his deeds he was later to become beatified and canonized as the first non-martyr saint.

Saint Martin

It comes as no surprise, then, that the sharing of the cloak is symbolised today in the Festival of Saint Martin of Tours, or São Martinho, in Portugal (and parts of Spain, France and Italy) by the sharing of chestnuts with the new wine, água pé (a drink made from the foot of the tank [pé] with the fermented grape mast and water) and jeropiga (or geropiga, origin: possibly "zarrapa" or "bad wine", or "xarope", sweetened syrup) made by mixing 75% new wine with 25% wine spirit and sugar. Chestnuts (Castania sativa), abundant in Portugal and parts of southern Europe, were a very important part of the diet during the winter, being dried and/or ground and used like potatoes (which substituted them), providing an important source of energy.

So the festival of Saint Martin is another festivity which uses symbolic values to teach people, in this case bringing communities together in the darkest times of the year, sharing the fare they had at the time, creating events at which the communities could regulate themselves, cater for the hungry and treat the sick. And it should be pointed out that the date has a wider and vast context across Europe.

The Indian Summer

A period of warmth after the first frosts is a meteorological phenomenon occurring across the northern hemisphere and therefore there are references to this period in many cultures. In Portugal, it is referred to as Verão de São Martinho (Saint Martin's Summer), originating from the French L´ Été de la Saint-Martin, where Saint Martin is still hugely popular; in Italy, Estate di San Martino; in Spain, Veranillo de San Martín or Veraniño de San Martiño, in Galicia or Estiuet de Sant Marti, in Catalonia. In all these cases, the festivities are accompanied by a giant bonfire (to warm the community and ward off evil spirits), called in Latin Magnus Ustus (magusto in Portuguese and magosto in Spain).

In American English, this period is referred to as the Indian Summer, coming evidently from the Native Americans in the USA, possibly being the period when the Indians harvested their main crops (being a forerunner of the Day of Thanksgiving on the last Thursday of November), possibly being the time when hostilities ceased between European settlers and the Native American populations, whose lands were being stolen. In British English, the term  Indian Summer replaced Saint Martin's Summer in the early 20th century.

In Russia and Slavic cultures, the period is referred to as Babye Leto, Russia (Old Ladies' Summer); Babie Lato (Poland); Babyno Lito (Ukraine); Babí Letó (Czech); Babie Leto (Slovakia); Bablje Ljeto (Croatia) while in Bulgaria it is Tsigansko Lyato (Gypsy Summer).

Other cultures attribute specific days to the phenomenon, coinciding with festivities based on local saints on dates spread between mid-October to late November, a fact which brings us back towards the premise that all of these dates celebrate festivities whose purpose was basically the same: benchmarks along the year using simple symbology to help communities remain self-regulatory.

 Timothy Bancroft-Hinchey


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Author`s name Timothy Bancroft-Hinchey