In the dark winter evening, small groups of children, usually accompanied by an adult, go in small processions through the streets. They hold small lanterns made from paper or turnips on sticks in front of them as they knock on doors and sing songs or recite little poems in exchange for bags of candy and fruit, in a ritual somewhat reminiscent of Halloween.
A face is often carved into the turnip so the little candle placed inside shines through. If made of paper, this is usually decorated to look colourful and festive. The songs the children sing hint only vaguely at the origins of the feast day, often containing puzzling references or nonsense words.
The origins of the feast day have to do with its proximity to the middle of winter. The cows had been brought in from the fields and households had started up their stoves against the winter cold. The children celebrated the last remnants of the summer harvest with candlelit processions, during which the adults would give them nuts and candy as a final treat before the darkest days of winter.
About St Martin
St Martin was born in western Hungary, son of a Roman Army officer. St Martin also joined the army but was interested in christianity from an early age. The army took him all over Europe and the event which made him famous happened in Amiens, France.
The Saint was riding towards the city gates when he noticed an old beggar at the side of the road, shivering in the freezing cold. The Saint observed him for a while and saw that no-one stopped to help him. So he drew his sword and cut his own cloak in half, giving half to the beggar. He could not give him all of his cloak as military regulations required him to have this at all times. The following night in a dream, he saw Jesus Christ wearing one half of his cloak. This vision made him resolve to devote his life to Christ and he got baptised immediately.
He later established a small group of disciples in a remote cave, where he could pursue his vision of hermetic devotion to God. However, after a few years, the local bishop of Tours died and the locals all wanted Martin to be the new bishop. Ever the modest hermit, he tried to get out of it by fleeing the mob but was betrayed by some geese honking in the stable he was hiding in. Ever since, the traditional food to eat on St Martin’s day has been goose.
His pursuers found him and had him made bishop in spite of the objections of local clerics, who considered him little more than a beggar himself. He went on to become one of the most successful evangelists of the early church and is now the patron saint of France.