The beginning of November usually brings the first chills, everyone has their fireplaces ablaze, winter clothing has been out of closets for a while and soups and stews are on the menù. Even though the weather has actually been very mild lately, it’s probably a state of mind – November is winter, and that’s that! But Mother Nature doesn’t totally agree, when every year she tricks us into thinking that summer has come back again, at least for a few days! This brief period is commonly called “L’estate di San Martino” (Saint Martin’s summer).
San Martino is celebrated on the 11th of November – but who was he? Why is this date dedicated to him, and what does a change of climate have to do with him?
Martinus de Tours was born in 316 in Pannonia, a land which is now part of modern Hungary, and which was at the time an outpost of the Roman Empire. His father, a roman official, named him Martinus after Mars, the god of war. He came to live in Italy as a child, when his veteran father was awarded an estate, and spent most of his childhood here. In 331 an edict proclaimed that all sons of veterans were to enlist in the roman army, and so it was that Martinus found himself part of the prestigious “Scholae Imperiali”, the units on horseback, whose job it was to guard the Emperor. He was thus sent to the city of Amiens in Gaul, and spent his military life there as a non-combatent, enforcing the law, protecting the imperial mail, dealing with prisoners or with important personalities.
As an overseer, his duty was to check the guard posts as well as carrying out night surveillance of the garrisons, and it was during one of these rounds that a life-changing event would occur. It was snowing heavily in the winter of 335 when Martinus encountered a homeless, almost naked beggar; unable to bear the man’s suffering, he ripped his military cloak in two and offered it to him. That night Martinus dreamt of Jesus, dressed in the half cloak, talking to his angels. He was telling them that the un-christened soldier had dressed him; the next morning, the cloak was miraculously whole again. Such was the impact of this dream, that Martinus decided to be christened on the following Easter. He left the army at approximately forty, and after many moral and religious battles, he became a monk in 361, and under the protection of the bishop, founded a monastery. In later years, he was proclaimed bishop of Tours by the people, and he spent his life spreading christianity, earning, in the process, the reputation of being a compassionate, righteous and humble man.
So, coming back to the story behind the legend, apparently, immediately following the noble gesture of Martinus, it ceased abrubtly to snow, the sky miraculously cleared, and the air became suddenly warmer, as though it were summer again – the so-called summer of San Martino.
But the name of Martinus is connected to this period for other, more pratical reasons too; it is common to hear someone who is moving house say “Sto facendo San Martino” – I am doing Saint Martinus…….it may sound a little strange to some, but it made perfect sense to the farmers of 50-60 years ago, when a good 60% or more of the population was occupied in agricultural activities, as farmhands and labourers. The working year finished at the beginning of November, after sowing had taken place, and if the land-owners had not renewed contracts for the following year, farmers were obliged to find work elsewhere. Since it was the custom to live in dwellings offered to them by the owners they were working for, this meant that their whole families had to move out and find alternative accomodation. This would nearly always come about on the 11th of November, taking advantage of the brief bout of fine weather, and labourers would often meet in front of the church dedicated to San Martino (there was no lack of churches!) to stipulate new contracts with land-owners. In later years, the square might be known as Piazza San Martino, in reference to the activity which took place there, in fact, in rural towns, there is almost always a square with this name.
The traditions – and necessities – of years gone by and our forefathers’ way of life stuck with the present generations, and to this day, when someone moves house, they still say “Sto facendo San Martino”.