Detail from “Charité de saint Martin” by Caroline Sorg (1864)
Spiritual intuition has always preserved a clear consciousness of all that waits upon this Birth: the sudden passionate exultation of the angelic world, all its charitable desires fulfilled, all the sacramental manifestation of created things, leading, pointing, to the Crib. Heaven and earth embracing one another: the very being of humanity, its manhood, crowned by this incarnation, and snatched up to a correspondence with the Real. Solemnly announced and long prepared, yet when the hour strikes, when that new life, veritably our own, is seen before us, and “Man stands in the New Birth”: then all that had gone before is obliterated, all gives place to this, to “the wonder of wonders, the human made Divine.”
—from The Spiral Way by Evelyn Underhill
Most of us in the Christian world have come to expect a four week-long Advent each year, starting sometime near the end of November and ending on Christmas Day. In the past, however, Advent was observed during a seven week period in much the same manner as Lent, though with slightly less emphasis on penance. This longer Advent season earned the name “St. Martin’s Lent” because it historically began on the Feast of St. Martin of Tours (November 11th) and ended, just like today, on Christmas Day. It was also called, variously, “St. Martin’s Fast” and “The Forty Days of St. Martin.”1
In an eighteenth century book entitled The Moveable Feasts, Fasts, and Other Annual Observances of the Catholic Church, author Rev. Alban Butler discusses the ancient practice of St. Martin’s Lent, writing,
“[St. Martin’s Lent] was formerly observed, even by the Laity, with Abstinence from Flesh, and with a rigorous Fast, in some Places, by Precept, in others of Devotion, and without any positive Obligation, though universal. The first Council of Maçon, in 581, ordered Advent from St. Martin’s to Christmas-day three Fasting Days a Week, Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays; but the whole Term of forty Days, was observed with a strict Abstinence from Flesh Meat.”2
Wouldn’t it be interesting if we were to take up, again, St. Martin’s Lent as a spiritual practice? In recent years I’ve heard of people embracing the concept of an “extended” Advent, but I feel there’s something missing in that gesture if all we’re doing is just adding extra time or extra candles. Advent—like many other Christian feasts, festivals, and holy days—has been almost completely secularized. Many people, even some Christians, think that Advent starts on December 1st, instead of the variable dates of the Church calendar. Perhaps reclaiming a bit of the penitential aspect of Advent would lead to a deeper engagement with the mystery of the Incarnation—Emmanuel, God with us.
st. martin’s example
Advent is about waiting for the birth of Christ, but it is also about waiting for the return of Christ. While we celebrate the first arrival, we turn our eyes toward the second. I plan to observe St. Martin’s Lent this year to try and brush away a bit of the superficial film that the Advent season seems to have accumulated from the secular world. I will take St. Martin’s own life as my lead, and attempt to follow the example of his legendary charity, as we move through the Advent season toward Christmas.
what about the candles?
Truthfully, I am still contemplating how best to approach this aspect of a longer Advent season, but I am leaning toward observing the first three weeks sans (without) candles, and then following the normal four-candle schedule (purple, purple, pink, purple) for the rest of Advent. So, I will eat my fill on Martinmas, and then move into a more penitential space—prayer, almsgiving, and fasting (Monday-Wednesday-Friday)—until Christmas.Note 1
It won’t be easy with all of the Advent-season goodies everywhere, but I suppose that’s part of the point, isn’t it?
If you’re looking for some contemplative reading material to get you through a longer Advent season, I would highly recommend for adults:
And, for children, you might consider:
Note 1 I am a vegetarian, so I abstain from flesh every day of the year. Those who regularly eat meat may wish to abstain during St. Martin’s Lent, as was common practice in prior ages.
Note 2 I don’t subscribe to Anthroposophy in its totality, nor do I agree with everything stated in this book, but this volume contains some of Steiner’s most brilliant insights on the Christmas festival—it’s worth wading into the weeds.
2 George, Maya, Faith and Philosophy of Christianity (Delhi: Kalpaz Publications, 2009), p 284
2 Butler, Alban, The Moveable Feasts, Fasts, and Other Annual Observances of the Catholic Church (London: C. Kiernan, 1774), p 98
Creating plant-based natural dyes is a magical experience, and it’s actually easier than it looks! There are a lot of tutorials out there, and I read many of them, but the following instructions are based completely on my own process. My son absolutely loved this activity. For him, it was a real “Little Red Hen” moment: He planted the marigolds back in June, watered them all summer, harvested the flowers, picked off the petals, stirred the pot, and then put the silks in the be dyed. He claimed the first one as a cape for himself, and it looks beautiful rippling in the autumn wind. The other silk I kept for myself, to ring my vase of Michaelmas daisies and just to enjoy throughout the season. I have a lot of dye bath left over, and plan to use it to dye some worsted weight yarn as a Christmas gift. Don’t be afraid to give plant-dyeing a try—marigolds are an easy way to get your feet…or should I say hands?…wet!
In a large bowl mix up your mordant: I used two tablespoons of alum per half gallon (8 cups) of water—make sure all of the alum is dissolved. Soak your un-dyed silk in the mordant for several hours (mine soaked while I was at work, about 6 hours total). Harvest fresh marigold flowers—you’ll need about 4 or 5 cups of petals to make a vivid dye. Fill your dye pot about 3/4 full with water and add the marigold petals. Bring to a boil, and then let simmer for at least an hour, stirring and smashing (gently) the petals periodically. You will notice them cook down quite a bit! Strain the petals as best you can from the dye bath—it’s okay if a few remain, as they won’t affect the dyeing process. Add your silk to the pot and submerge fully. Continue to simmer silk in the dye bath for another half hour or so, and then remove the silks from the pot (don’t pour out the dye bath because you can use it again, though the second round of dye may be less vivid). Rinse the silks gently in first lukewarm and then cold water until the rinse runs clear. Line dry or tumble dry on low, and then iron to give the silk a nice sheen.
Fasting days and Emberings be
Lent, Whitsun, Holyrood, and Lucie.
— Old English Rhyme
When asked to name times during the year that are of great importance to Christians, most people would suggest Christmas and Easter; not many of them would say “Ember Days.” But, in fact, Ember Days are an ancient tradition that predates Christmas, Advent, and many other Christian celebrations, and can be traced all the way back to the time of the Hebrew Scriptures, when a fast of the fourth, fifth, seventh, and tenth months was prescribed. During Jesus’s time there was also a Jewish custom of fasting every Tuesday and Thursday of the week. The first Christians carried on these two traditions, but chose to fast instead on Wednesday and Friday, the day Jesus was betrayed and the day he died, respectively.i
There are several different explanations for the origins of the name “Ember Days.” Some say it is a corruption of the Latin name Quatuor Temporum, which means “Four Times” or “Four Seasons.”ii It’s also possible that the term could be derived from the ancient Saxon language, where Emb, or embe, means a “course” or “circuit.”iii The Ember Days are a quarterly series of Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, taking place at the beginning of each natural season, that are set aside as a time of fasting and prayer: Michaelmas Embertide in September, signaling the beginning of autumn; Advent Embertide in December, ushering in the winter season; Lenten Embertide, which arrives in spring; and Whit Embertide comes at the start of the summer season.iv These three days each season provide the faithful with an opportunity to contemplate the wonder of God through His creation—that is, the natural world—and to engage in self-reflection. St. Cyril of Jerusalem, who lived in the 4th Century CE, provides an excellent model for Embertide contemplation. He writes,v
If any man attempt to speak of God, let him first describe the bounds of the earth. Thou dwellest on the earth, and the limit of this earth which is thy dwelling thou knowest not: how then shalt thou be able to form a worthy thought of its Creator? Thou beholdest the stars, but their Maker thou beholdest not: count these which are visible, and then describe Him who is invisible, Who telleth the number of the stars, and calleth them all by their names.
In addition to their associations with the changing seasons, Ember Days also correspond to other feasts during the Christian Year. Michaelmas Embertide follows the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (September 14th); Advent Embertide comes on the heels of St. Lucy’s Day (December 13th); Lenten Embertide is paired, of course, with the start of Lent; and Whit Embertide, as its name suggests, is associated with Whitsunday (Pentecost). By observing the Ember Days at the beginning of each season, we are retrieving this ancient aspect of our ecclesiastical history, which is said to have originated with the Apostles themselves, as well as our shared cultural history. Even those who are not practicing Christians can appreciate the historical significance of the Ember Days—anyone with European roots will be in good company with their ancestors, for whom these four weeks during the year were of great importance. So, let’s take this opportunity to pick up where the collective “we” left off. Let’s spend a little bit of time: fasting1, using our skills or resources for the benefit of others, and contemplating God and His creation (which was placed in the care of our most distant ancestors, Adam and Eve, in the Garden of Eden—so the story goes).
I’ve put together a little booklet of readings that I hope you might enjoy—mostly poetry, and some Bible verses—called Readings for Advent Embertide (click on title to download). Please feel free to share this post and/or my booklet, non-commercial use only. Thank you.
1 Fasting provides an opportunity to consider God’s gifts and how to use them in moderation. Fasting on Ember Days means one regular meal per day (two smaller meals in morning and evening, no snacks) on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, with the addition of abstaining from meat on Friday.
i “Ember Days, Rogations Days, and Station Churches,” Holy Trinity (German) Catholic Church, www.holytrinitygerman.org, 5/13/15
iii “Ember Days,” an excerpt from A Companion for the Book of Common Prayer by John Henry Hobart, Anglican Bible & Book Society, www.anglicanbible.org, 9/19/12
v “Ember Days” by Tracy Tucciarone, Fish Eaters, www.fisheaters.com, 7/30/06
Apple picking in early autumn is a quintessential New England activity. I love to take my children out in the early morning, when the air still has a bit of a chill, and wander through the orchard. While the little ones tend to go for quantity, I like to take my time and select the most delicious-looking specimens. The ride home is silent but for the crunching of little teeth on ripe, juicy fruits. And, of course, there will be lots of homemade treats to bake — apple crisp, applesauce, and pie to name a few — and don’t forget the cider! (Our favorite apple crisp recipe is at the end of this post.)
11And God said, “Let the earth put forth vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind, upon the earth.” And it was so. 12 The earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed according to their own kinds, and trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. — Genesis 1:12
Our Favorite Apple Crisp Recipe (adapted from Betty Crocker)
4 medium apples, sliced about 4 cups total
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup old-fashioned oats
1/3 cup butter, softened
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
[whipped ream or ice cream, if desired]
Heat oven to 375ºF. Grease the bottom and sides of 8-inch square pan with butter. Spread the apples in the pan. In a medium bowl, stir the remaining ingredients until well mixed, and then sprinkle the mixture over the apples. Bake for about 30 minutes, or until the topping is golden brown and the apples are tender. Top with whipped cream or ice cream!
The Feast of St. Nicholas, or St. Nicholas Day as it is commonly called, takes place each year on December 6th. In the United States we don’t really celebrate St. Nicholas Day, but in some European countries it is as highly anticipated as Christmas is here. St. Nicholas was a Bishop in Lycia (modern-day Turkey) during the fourth century A.D. One legend regarding his works and character is as follows: St. Nicholas heard that children in a neighboring village were impoverished and starving because of a famine. So, he instructed his own servants to harvest everything on his estate and they all traveled to the village and distributed the food to the starving children. No matter how much he gave away, there always seemed to be more in his sack. There are other versions of this story, but the common theme is that they all involve miraculous quantities of food provided by St. Nicholas. Because he was willing to give it away, God helped him to provide it. The St. Nicholas Center has an enormous amount of information about St. Nicholas’s life, his works, and ways that his feast day can be celebrated—it is well worth a visit. You might be surprised by how much our modern-day Christmas resembles this ancient feast day! And, beyond the fun, St. Nicholas is a wonderful model for how to be live a saintly life—he is the embodiment of love, kindness, and generosity.
celebrating with children
For our little celebration at home we have the children play the role of St. Nicholas and fill a bag with small treats and tokens for each other. Then they hang it on the doorknobs of their bedroom doors, to be opened in the morning. Europeans typically use shoes but I made bags because they are cleaner, and can be reused year after year (you can’t outgrow a felt bag). The little gifts for the bags usually include: A book, either about St. Nicholas or about the Christmas season; chocolate coins, or real coins of some special variety (these replicas from A Toy Garden are wonderful); a chocolate orange; and a candy cane. I mix it up a bit each year.
On St. Nicholas’ Eve we like to read The Baker’s Dozen: A St. Nicholas Tale , written by Aaron Shepherd with pictures by Wendy Edelson. This beautifully illustrated children’s book, set in the Dutch colony that would become Albany, N.Y., tells the story of a baker, Van Amsterdam, who always gives his customers exactly what they pay for; no more, no less. That is, until he receives a special visitor who teaches him that sometimes by giving more, we get more in return.
Here are some of our favorite St. Nicholas books:
don’t forget a tasty snack!
There are lots of different recipes for the traditional St. Nicholas cookie eaten on his feast day. This one, adapted from a recipe provided by St. Nicholas Center, is our family’s favorite.
Speculatius (German Spice Cookies), adapted from St. Nicholas Center
1 c shortening
2 c white sugar
4 eggs whole
3/4 tsp salt
2 tsp baking powder
4 c flour
4 tsp cinnamon
2 tsp allspice
2 tsp nutmeg
2 tsp ginger
2 tsp cloves
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Mix all ingredients in order, and turn the dough out onto a floured board. Knead in about one cup of additional flour or as much as you need until dough is no longer sticky and is easy to handle.
3. Wrap the dough in wax paper or plastic wrap until ready to use. Roll out small sections of dough at a time, keeping the remainder refrigerated.
4. If using cookie cutters to cut out small shapes, make sure to roll the dough out thinly—about 1/8 inch thickness is ideal.
5. If using a cooking mold or making larger cookies, roll the dough to about 1/4 inch thickness.
6. Bake cookies until golden brown (varies depending on size and thickness).
For more ideas and inspiration for celebrating St. Nicholas Day, visit my Pinterest board!
“The nights will be long, dark, and cold.
Jack Frost will freeze the ground.
How shall I find the light
With so much darkness all around?”
Said Father Sun, “I’ll give you from my
Last autumn rays, a spark,
If you will make a little house
To hold it in the dark.”
from “George’s Lantern” by Anonymous
Martinmas, or the Feast of St. Martin of Tours takes place each year on November 11th. The story of St. Martin (b. 316 A.D.) begins with his decision as a young man to become a Catechumen (a convert to Christianity who has not yet been baptized), against the wishes of his parents. Although conscripted into the Roman army, he found his duties as a soldier to be at odds with his new Christian faith. After a series of trials and tribulations (including being jailed for refusing to fight) he was baptized and embraced monastic life; he was made Bishop of Tours in 371 A.D. He is, however, most famous for an event which occurred during his time as a Roman soldier. Legend tells us that upon entering the gates of Amiens, France on a cold, snowy evening Martin happened upon a beggar clothed in nothing but rags. Without a second thought, Martin took his sword and cut his red military cloak in half and gave part of it to the beggar. That night Martin dreamt that he saw Christ wrapped in the piece of cloak, which solidified his faith and was perhaps the catalyst for the rest of his life’s work. You can read more about St. Martin in the November 2015 issue of the around the year newsletter.
For special days such as this I always like to spend a little time creating festive decorations, like the glittery stars on our branch mobile, and also I like to venture into the woods to find some natural elements to decorate the table. In the evening we eat a delicious feast in honor of St. Martin (recipes below) and read The Star Child, written by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm & illustrated by Bernadette Watts (purchased here). This beautiful picture book tells the story of a little orphan girl who gives away everything she has, even the clothing on her back, and is handsomely rewarded with star money falling from heaven — a perfect complement to the legend of St. Martin. In much of Europe the Feast of St. Martin is celebrated with a lantern walk in the evening, and so we do the same. We make beautiful lanterns with glass jars and tissue paper, and process with them around our neighborhood. There is something so wonderful about watching the light reach out into the darkness; to know that each of us carry a “light” just like this inside of us and that we can use it as a force for good in the world, as St. Martin did so long ago.
Martinmas, like many feast days, usually involves a lot of meat—traditionally roasted goose or sausages. I’m a vegetarian, so I created my own menu based on some of the traditions associated with Martinmas, especially in Europe. We have wine because St. Martin of Tours is the patron saint of vintners. I adapted a recipe for Sausages & Apples using my favorite brand of vegetarian sausages, and threw in a side of roasted carrots and parsnips because they’re quintessential late autumn vegetables. Wine poached pears are a phenomenally delicious nod to medieval cookery, and surprisingly easy to prepare. And, of course, a Martinmas meal would not be complete without Vanilla Horseshoe Cookies, which are traditionally made for St. Martin’s beautiful white horse—they’re quite tasty for humans, too!
Sausages with Apples & Onions
adapted from Food&Wine
1 Tbsp olive oil
1/2 sweet onion, thinly sliced
2 tsp minced garlic
1 (8-ounce) box of MorningStar Farms® Veggie Sausage Links
1/4 c water
1/4 c apple cider
2 apples, peeled and thinly sliced
1/2 tsp marjoram
salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
1. In a large skillet, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add onions and cook until slightly softened. Add garlic and marjoram and sauté for an additional 30 seconds.
2. Add sausages, water and cider to skillet. Cook until water is mostly evaporated.
3. Add apples, cover, and cook until soft and lightly browned, about 10 minutes.
Roasted Carrots and Parsnips
adapted from Martha Stewart
1 lb carrots, cut into thick strips (about 2″ long)
1 lb parsnips, peeled, cut into thick strips (about 2″ long)
1 Tbsp olive oil
1/2 tsp dried thyme
1/2 tsp salt
pepper, to taste
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. In a large baking pan, toss carrots, parsnips, oil, thyme, salt, and pepper. Spread evenly throughout pan.
3. Roast vegetables until tender, stirring occasionally, for about an hour and fifteen minutes. Serve immediately.
Red Wine Poached Pears
adapted from The Spruce
2 large pears, peeled, halved, and cored
1 1/2 c red wine
3/4 c sugar
2 Tbsp apple cider
2 tsp vanilla
2 tsp cinnamon
1. Combine wine, sugar, apple cider, vanilla, and cinnamon in a large skillet, and bring to a boil over medium heat.
2. Add pears, flat side down, and simmer for about 10 minutes; flip pears over and simmer an additional 10 minutes.
3. Remove pears to cool a bit. Continue simmering wine sauce until it has reduced by about half (a spoon dragged through the sauce should leave a trail).
4. Remove sauce from heat and pour over pears. Serve warm, but not hot.
Vanilla Horseshoe Cookies
adapted from Catholic Culture
1 c salted butter, softened
1/2 c confectioners’ sugar
2 tsp vanilla
2 c flour
1 c rolled oats, uncooked
1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
2. Cream butter. Add sugar gradually while continuing to cream; beat until fluffy.
3. Stir in vanilla, flour, and salt. Add rolled oats and blend by hand, kneading the oats into the dough while still in the bowl.
4. Take a bit of dough, roll into a short “snake” shape, and then bend into a horseshoe on the cookie sheet. Repeat until cookie sheet is filled. These cookies don’t rise much, so they can be placed pretty close together. Bake until lightly browned, about 15 minutes. Remove carefully from cookie sheet, as cookies are very rich and break easily—place on rack, and enjoy at room temperature.
For more ideas and inspiration for celebrating Martinmas, visit my Pinterest board!
Friend butterfly, friend butterfly, go fetch them one and all!
I’m waiting here to welcome every guest;
And tell them it is Michaelmas, and soon the leaves will fall,
But I think Autumn sunshine is the best!
— Cicely Mary Barker
And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, And prevailed not…
— Revelation 12:7-8
Michaelmas, or the Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels, takes place each year on September 29th. Its close proximity to the equinox makes it an ideal time to celebrate the change of the seasons, and to prepare for the waning of daylight that happens as we turn away from the sun (at least here in the Northern Hemisphere). A celebration for the Archangel Michael, who symbolizes light and protection against evil, helps to prepare one to face not only the physical darkness of the fall and winter months, but also the metaphoric darkness that we face both in the world and in ourselves. With a young child involved it seemed best to keep the mood cheerful and light, and to keep the focus on the preparation of food and assembling of supplies. Zane and I spent our day gathering wild asters and getting ready to prepare our Michaelmas feast (see recipes below).
Traditionally a goose is eaten on Michaelmas, but I’m a vegetarian so I chose a slightly different menu and took a picture of some geese instead 🙂
Carrot Bisque from Vegan with a Vengeance by Isa Chandra Moskowitz
3 lbs. carrots, peeled and diced into small pieces (1/2″ or less)
1 large onion, chopped
2 tablespoons vegetable oil of some sort
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tbsp curry powder
1/2 tsp salt
Black pepper to taste
3 cups vegetable broth, of vegetable bouillon cube in 3 cups water
1 can coconut milk (13 oz)
1 tbsp maple syrup
Cook carrots and onions in the oil, covered, until mostly softened. Add the spices and garlic and cook for another minute or so. Add broth and bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for about 10 minutes. Add coconut milk and bring to a low boil. Next, you will puree the soup. She says do 1/2, I do the whole thing and I do it with an immersion blender. You can do whatever you like. Add the maple syrup.
Saint Michael’s Bannock, adapted from several recipes
(this is not a traditional bannock, but more of a very hearty tea bread)
1/2 cup rye flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1 & 1/2 cup white flour
1/2 cup rolled oats
1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 cup white raisins
1 1/2 cup buttermilk*
2 tsp baking powder
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1 tsp allspice
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp cloves
1 tsp nutmeg
*Buttermilk can be made using any milk of your choice (dairy or non-dairy) and a tablespoon of lime juice, lemon juice, or vinegar per cup of buttermilk required. Add the juice or vinegar first, and then fill to the desired measuring line.
Preheat oven to 375º F. In a large bowl, sift both flours together. Add salt, baking powder and soda to sifted flours. Add the spices and stir until mixed. Add oats, sugar, and raisins to flour mixture. Slowly add the buttermilk and mix by hand until thoroughly combined. Pour into a greased bread pan and bake for 35-45 minutes.
Mixed Berry Crisp, adapted from a recipe by Williams-Sonoma
4 cups frozen mixed berries (including blackberries, which are a traditional Michaelmas food)
1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
3/4 cup light brown sugar
1/2 cup flour
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 stick butter or margarine, softened, cut into pieces
3/4 cup rolled oats
Preheat an oven to 375°F. Grease a shallow 1 1/2-quart baking dish with butter or margarine, or spray with vegetable cooking spray. Spread the berries evenly over the bottom of the prepared baking dish and sprinkle with the lemon juice. In a bowl, using a pastry blender or fork, mix together the brown sugar, flour, cinnamon, butter and rolled oats until well combined. Sprinkle evenly over the berries. Bake until the top is golden and the berries are bubbling, about 30 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and let cool. Serve hot or warm, with ice cream or whipped cream!
For more ideas and inspiration for celebrating Michaelmas, visit my Pinterest board!
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