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
“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 is celebrated 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.
St. Martin’s Best-Known Miracle
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 newsletter.
Celebrating with Children
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 and read The Star Child, written by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm & illustrated by Bernadette Watts. 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.
For more ideas and inspiration for celebrating Martinmas, visit my Pinterest board!
Martinmas Feast Menu
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° F.
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° F.
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.