#SuperstitionSat Highlights: Martinmas, The Time Of Bonfires & Lanterns

Hello, and welcome to another round of Highlights of our #SuperstitionSat Sessions on Twitter! Yesterday (05/11/22), we gathered around the fire to hear some of your tales of BONFIRES & LANTERNS and to commemmorate the festivities of MARTINMAS. This is a European festive season that begins on the 1st of November in some regions, and lasts until the 11th of November, which is St Martin’s Day. All around the continent, countries will prepare their own feasts in honour of Saint Martin, from roasted chestnuts to roasted geese, accompanied by good wine and merriment aplenty.

But who was Saint Martin? Let’s look at our first Highlight to answer this question, as shared by OldSoul. Legend says that, before he became the Bishop of the city of Tours in France, Saint Martin of Tours (or Martin the Merciful as he was also called) used to be a Roman soldier. While out in the cold of early November, he spotted a poor beggar with almost nothing in the way of clothing to protect himself from the harsh weather. But then, struck by charity, St Martin tore his soldier’s cloak in half with his blade, and gave the other half to the poor traveller, who wrapped himself up right away. And in that moment, God, who had been observing St Martin’s reaction, suddenly made the sun shine brighter and warmer, to the point that it was no longer even necessary to be wearing a cloak. This tale had such an impact on a Catholic country like Portugal, that the Portuguese developed a saying for unseasonably warm weather in November, calling this period the “Summer of Saint Martin”, or Verão de São Martinho. But they were not the only ones to do so—keep reading! Meanwhile, to get yourself started on your research about Saint Martin and his charitable acts, try Sacred and Legendary Art by Anna Brownell Jameson (1891), available to read for free here, pp. 720-728.

Also shared by OldSoul was the tale that several countries in the continent mark this last week of (supposedly) good weather before Winter by creating and parading with beautiful paper lanterns—as is the case in Germany where Lantern Day, or Laternelaufen, is observed on November 11th.

And speaking of lanterns, it was just last week that we looked at the tale of Stingy Jack and his Jack-‘o-Lantern, lit inside a turnip or pumpkin from an ember from Hell. And you would be right to draw comparisons with Allhallowtide, as Martinmas was once also known as “Old Halloween”, falling on November 1st before the switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, as shared by Beira Atlántica, from Galicia. It is in this region, as well as Portugal and other areas of the Iberian Peninsula, that folks eat roasted chestnuts for Martinmas. Whether its Magosto, Magusto, or Castañada, the Iberians sure know how to party, with the sweet aroma of warm chestnuts filling the air, traditionally served in wrappings of old newspaper and accompanied by newly made muscat wine (or jeropiga in Portuguese). With large bonfires lit in church squares, much like Bonfire Night in the United Kingdom, it’s hard not to feel all warm and cosy and ready for Winter. For more on Martinmas as it was once celebrated in the British Isles before it was replaced by Bonfire Night, we recommend this article from the Folklore Journal here, but if you can’t access that, you can always try Origins and Inventions by William Pulleyn (1869), available for free here, pp. 224-225. There is even a brief mention of “St Martin’s Little Summer”, observed by the likes of William Shakespeare in King Henry VI, where the author noted:

“Assign’d am I to be the English scourge.
This night the siege assuredly I’ll raise.
Expect Saint Martin’s summer, halcyon days,
Since I have entered into these wars.”

Well, fancy that! Indeed, it’s time to say goodbye to these last ‘halcyon’ days of warmth, before things turn truly dark and dreary in this Northern Hemisphere of ours. Which is why our final Highlight of Martinmas went to our pals at ofdarkandmacabre, who shared a tale from Germany about the Pelzmartel, also known as Belsnickel. Often called the counterpart of Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus, the Belsnickel is said to prowl the nights from Martinmas up until Christmas, covered by a fur cloak—which is why he is also called Pelzmartel, meaning fur clothes. More often than not, he will find a naughty child and leave them an appropriately bad gift, with tales claiming this will be a plain birch rod, and therefore reserving the distribution of all the good presents for Saint Nick. At least, that’s what was recorded in the magazine Notes and Queries, Issue 217 (December 1853), available to read for free here. And for more on the Belsnickel, according to traditions brought into the United States via German migrants to Pennsylvania, see The Oxford Handbook of American Folklore and Folklife Studies, available to preview here, pp. 783.

That was all for today! I hope you enjoyed this selection, as well as this little ‘giving-back’ project of featuring your tweets on our Blog. Originally created to disprove some unfounded accusations that all those who participate in our Sessions do little to no research, the #SuperstitionSat Highlights sought not only to lift up the Folklore community, but also to provide ample evidence that it is quite easy to find a source—if you really put your mind to it. In the event, feeling like we have accomplished our task, after this December we will be moving towards a new section in our website called Sources, where we will hope to point you towards useful publications about superstitions and folklore. There will also be some changes to the way Sessions take place, but we’ll leave that announcement for another time. Meanwhile, I hope you will be ready to join us again next week (12/11/22), with good old family-favourite superstitions of:


Photo by Superstition Sam, featuring a decaying log covered in brown mushrooms.

As always, whether you’re old, new or just passing through, your presence was very much appreciated, and I was so glad to see you stop by and participate in our #SuperstitionSat Sessions. Only six more Highlights to go!

Wishing you all the best,
– Superstition Sam 🐾