November is a month of remembrance, family get-togethers and feasting. Let’s take a look at some of the Irish connections behind Martinmas and Thanksgiving.
November the 11th – what’s so special about this day?
Today is November 11th , the Feast of St. Martin, also known as Martinmas. Do you know that this was the original date for Hallowe’en before the introduction of the Gregorian calendar? In October 1582, Pope Gregory XIII introduces a complex re-alignment of the Julian calendar which results in a 10-day correction of the year. An old Irish saying reflects this:
“Nine days and a night without counting, from November night to St. Martin’s Night”
We can clearly see that the date-shift means that some of the old traditions of Martinmas originate from Samhain celebrations. All over Europe we find that bonfires, lanterns and feasting are an integral part of Martinmas.
In addition, November 11th is a day when much of the modern world commemorates military veterans, especially family members lost in World Wars. Although officially, this date represents Armistice Day, it’s interesting to note the connection to St. Martin’s story. He too is a veteran soldier, and some also say he is the first “conscientious objector” on record!
Martinmas – St Martin’s Day
An old Irish manuscript from the Middle Ages (around 1500 A.D.) sits in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. In 1887 Dr Whitley Stokes releases his book, “The Tripartite Life of St Patrick” which includes translations from the Irish. The manuscript details how St Martin is the man who shaves St. Patrick’s head when he first becomes a Christian monk. Giving thanks for his “tonsure”, St. Patrick begins the old Irish tradition of sacrificing animals on St. Martin’s Day.
From the late 4th century, it is customary for Christians to begin a 40-day period of fasting on the day after St. Martin’s Day, November 11th. It is “Quadragesima Sancti Martini”, Latin for “the forty days of St. Martin.” At St. Martin’s eve and on the feast day, people eat and drink very heartily for the last time before they start to fast. This period later becomes “Advent” for the Church – a time for spiritual preparation for Christmas.
Blood & Sacrifice!
In Irish folk history, we see how these practises are still common in Ireland up until the late 1800’s. Known as “Bleeding for St Martin”, rural families would kill an animal or bird on this day and sprinkle the blood on the threshold of their home. They would also mark out the four corners of the property. This ritual guards the household against “all kinds of evils spirits” until the next St. Martin’s Day.
Although the sacrificial elements of these traditions seem like grisly customs today, they are a typical part of Harvest End for farming communities. From medieval times, some livestock is killed at this time for winter meat. Animal fodder is scarce, and needs to be kept specifically for milking, breeding and working stock.
No generous person ever went to hell. “Níor chuaigh fial riamh go hIfreann.”
After “The Bleeding”, the household would cook and share the animal as part of their Martinmas Feast. Families doing well would also give meat to their poorer neighbours, in an act of charity. They traditionally donate clothes and blankets to the needy against the cold of the coming winter. On the next day, the pre-Christmas fast begins.
No Turning Of The Wheel
History tells us that St Martin meets his death on a mill-wheel. It is therefore especially relevant to note that Irish people did no work involving a wheel of any kind on November 11th. This means no travelling, no spinning, no milling, no ploughing, no pulling of a cart. Some stories tell that “civil servants” do not work on this day. So, no postal deliveries, or tax-collecting!
In the 1820’s, the historian Patrick Kennedy records a tale of Irish fisherman in County Wexford. They set out to sea on November 11th and are immediately met with an apparition of St Martin. He walks along the wave crests beside them, telling them to return to the harbour. Many do just that. A huge storm blows up that same afternoon, and those ignoring the advice perish at sea!
But who was St. Martin, anyway?
Saint Martin of Tours (Martin le Miséricordieux)
In the early 300’s Martin is born in Hungary. His father is an officer of the Roman Imperial Horse Guard. Martin adopts Christian faith at the age of ten, apparently against his parents’ wishes. At the age of fifteen, he is conscripted to the Roman Army as a cavalry man.
The most iconic images of St Martin show him on a horse, cutting his military cloak in two. He gives one half to an elderly roadside beggar, who is naked and freezing. On the night of this deed, Martin dreams of Jesus Christ, who appears to him wearing the half-cloak. Martin hears Jesus tell the angels, “Here is Martin, the Roman soldier who is now baptised; he has clothed me.”
Consequently, Martin decides that his faith and beliefs are incompatible with his profession. He becomes the first “conscientious objector” and leaves the Roman Army. Furthermore, he becomes a monk and later a Bishop. Most of all, Martin dedicates himself to the freeing of prisoners. Early secular authorities, and even emperors, often refuse to see him. They know he will request mercy for someone, and they will be unable to refuse!
Martin later establishes a monastery at Marmoutier in France, on the river Loire opposite the city of Tours. Along with 80 other monks, he lives in a settlement of caves carved out of a rock face. The monks remain in solitude, coming together only for meals and prayers. This community becomes an administrative model for western monasticism. It inspires the founding of the earliest Christian churches throughout Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
Researchers of St. Martin’s story all agree on his common motifs of sacrifice, sharing, charity and peace. He is the Patron Saint of Soldiers, Riders, Beggars, Tailors, Inn-Keepers and Wine-makers. His most noteworthy blessings fall on reformed alcoholics, and also protect his followers against poverty!
St. Martin’s Day commemorates his death on November 11th. It certainly seems like a fitting day for honouring soldiers and military veterans. The next big November holiday, particularly for those in North America, is Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving Celebrations in November
Thanksgiving is not an official Irish holiday. However, with the Irish diaspora, there are so many family connections that most of us know someone who’ll be celebrating. Thanksgiving conjures up scenes of joyous reunions with family and friends, sumptuous feasts and prayers of gratitude. Celebrations take place on the fourth Thursday of November. This year it falls on the 23rd November (2017).
The officially recognised November Thanksgiving holiday was only settled in 1863 by President Lincoln. But there are many stories and folktales that tell of the history of Thanksgiving. Some sources date the original feast to February 1621, or 1631. In both cases, all credit goes to Dublin!
The Irish Connection to The First Thanksgiving Meal
It seems like the Irish are always claiming some connection to festivities held all over the world! Strangely, it’s often true. Whenever there’s revelry, there’s often a link to an Irish feast of some sort. Surprisingly, there’s even an Irish twist to the story of the first Thanksgiving meal!
Thank Heaven for Irish Fathers!
Back in the 1920s and 1930s, The Boston Post is one of the highest-circulation newspapers in the USA. A current affairs column, “the Observant Citizen”, investigates the origins of the first Thanksgiving meal. It details an early Thanksgiving celebration on February 21, 1621 when a band of ailing pilgrims at Plymouth Rock are saved from imminent starvation by the arrival of a supply ship from Dublin, Ireland. Records at the Massachusetts Historical Society show that the wife of one of the prominent Plymouth Rock brethren is the daughter of a Dublin merchant. Her father charters a vessel, loads it with food and drink and dispatches it to feed the pilgrims.
200 Tons of Party Food from Dublin?
Earlier details appear in a Boston publication from 1736. The New England Historic-Genealogical Society publishes “A Chronological History of New England in the Form of Annals”. The author is Rev. Thomas Prince, an Anglican priest.
He dates the event to the harsh winter of February 1631, when the settlers are suffering a near-famine. Furthermore, he specifically names the supply ship as “The Lyon of Bristol”. The ships-master, Captain William Pierce is a member of their colony who set sail for Dublin in the previous year. He now returns, his 200-ton ship laden with provisions. The annals record his arrival in Nantucket:
“Upon which joyful occasion the day is changed and ordered to be kept on the 22nd as a day of Thanksgiving”.
Ireland, they say, is the only country in the world to send relief to the suffering colonists only 11 years after the pilgrims first landing.
More Date-Shifting… The People Protest!
Over 200 years later, in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln decrees the day a national holiday and moves it to the fourth Thursday of November. In 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moves Thanksgiving back a few weeks. His reasoning is that people are spending less money on festivities as Thanksgiving is so close to Christmas. By providing more time between holidays, he envisions greater merchant sales and more dollars circulating in the economy.
This move proves to be rather unpopular with the general public! The origin of Thanksgiving becomes a topic of intense scrutiny, in an effort to validate the original date. (The stories above relate to investigations during this period.) Just one year later, the people prevail, and the date is changed back to the fourth Thursday in November.
November in Ireland – Preparing for Christmas!
Here in Ireland, we all know that “Christmas is coming” when the last of the Hallowe’en Brack is gone, and the “An Post Christmas Stamps” are issued!
This week, the postman delivers a little card like the one in the picture here. It indicates the last posting dates for worldwide delivery at Christmas. In many Irish households, this starts the tradition of going through Mammy’s address book and writing cards out to “the relations” abroad. Many “Irish Exiles” will probably be expecting a parcel from home with Irish goodies inside!
In keeping with this tradition, we at Skellig Gift Store would like to remind you of these dates for planning your Christmas gifts and greetings. You still have time to join SkelligClub and subscribe to our newsletter below. In the lead-up to Christmas, we’ll be bringing you exclusive offers and great price reductions.
Choose gorgeous Irish gifts for your loved ones, both home and abroad. We offer free shipping worldwide, so everyone can celebrate their Irish Roots at Christmas!
We hope you have enjoyed reading our introduction to November Traditions, Martinmas and Thanksgiving.
Here at Skellig Gift Store, we love to bring you news of Irish traditions and customs. Why not incorporate the best of Irish tableware in your own family celebrations? Some of these lovely pieces will last for generations to come.
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In conclusion, we want to share with you this funny video of “Irish People Tasting Thanksgiving Food”. It makes us laugh, and we hope you’ll enjoy it, too.