St. Martin and the Geese

 

St. Martin and the Geese

November 15, 2010

By: Allan Stevo

Legend tells of a Roman soldier on horseback coming across a man begging alongside the road. The beggar was poorly clothed and shivering in the cold.  The Roman soldier, who was awaiting his baptism, upon seeing the beggar was moved to draw his sword, cut his own cloak in half and to give half of it to the shivering beggar.  That soldier would come to be known as Martin of Tours and his legendary kindness would be immortalized in tales and art throughout Europe.

The time on and around St. Martin’s Day – November 11 – is celebrated by some Slovaks with a feast of roast goose, or “husacie hody.”  The day is a significant one throughout Europe and has a long history – going back hundreds of years, in celebration of St. Martin’s life, a life that began near present-day Bratislava.

Who was St. Martin?

The man commemorated on this day was Martin of Tours. He was born in the Roman province of Pannonia in the city of Savaria, the capital of Pannonia Prima, about 100 miles south of present-day Bratislava, Slovakia.  Savaria is the present-day town of Szombathely, Hungary.

His father being a Roman officer, it is not surprising that Martin was named “Martin” after Mars, the Roman god of war.  His biographers tell us that at a young age he insisted on joining the still fledgling Christian church, against his parents’ wishes.  As the son of a Roman officer he followed his father’s occupation, as was expected of him.

A famous story surrounding St. Martin was that while serving in the Roman cavalry, he encountered a poor beggar who did not have enough clothing.  Martin pulled out his sword and cut his own cloak in two, giving half of it to the beggar and leaving Martin only half of his cloak with which to continue on the cold day ahead. This took place before he’d reached the age of 18.

In time, he became what we might today call a “conscientious objector” and requested to leave the army.  This insistence came on the eve of a big battle. His superiors recognized cowardice in his request and said so to his face.  In response, he offered to lead the army into battle the next morning, but only on the condition that he not be forced to carry a weapon with him and that he not be forced to do harm to any man on that battlefield that day.  His superiors agreed to Martin’s foolish proposal.  The battle never took place and Martin was released from his duty to the Roman legions.

The word hagiography literally means “writing about the lives of the saints,” but it has become used in a figurative sense to mean any biography that is overly supportive and creative about how great a person is.  The biography of St. Martin by his contemporary St. Sulpicius Severus is both a hagiography of Martin in the literal sense and in the figurative sense.  You really get the feeling from reading it that you are with this unbelievable being who is not possibly human.

As with any information about a person so commonly mythologized, it’s hard to tell where the truth begins and ends.  However, maybe the truth about Martin isn’t so important.  Maybe his life can be read like a novel through which we might better understand a certain view of Christian qualities that have been idealized by those who wrote about him – a prayerful life in which we try not to harm others, a life in which we try to do good for those around us.

A strange detail about the remembrance of Martin of Tours is that he has an unusually high level of respect among some non-Catholics as well.  Lutherans generally do not name their churches after saints who did not appear in the Bible.  St. Martin of Tours is an exception.  A Google search for “St. Martin Lutheran Church” produces 75,000 results.

One reason for this may have some connection to Martin Luther, the Roman Catholic priest who began what historians today refer to as “the Protestant Reformation.”  Luther, who was born on Nov 8, 1483, was baptized three days after his birth on the feast of St. Martin and was therefore named after this

Photo: Horst Grund

regionally significant Roman Catholic saint.

So why the heck do people eat geese on St. Martin’s Day?

There seems to have been a mystical power to Martin that caused him to be elevated and noticed by other throughout his time, despite, according to his biographers, a desire to simply be left alone to pray in isolation.

Martin chose a monastic life and had no interest in higher office, as the legend goes.  He spent time in isolation and in a community of believers that was centered on prayer and sought to live in poverty.  The local bishop had died and hearing of the miracles Martin had worked, the people called for the elevation of this former soldier, Martin of Tours, to the vacant position of bishop.  And when emissaries came to deliver the news and to call Martin to his bishopric, Martin was ready for them.  He hid himself in a flock of geese that were being raised nearby.  The emissaries waited and waited, but were unable to find Martin.  What they did notice were a flock of geese hidden in a barn making a whole lot of noise.  This can be expected, as the geese were likely not used to one of the local monks crouching down amongst them.  As time passed, the emissaries, no longer interested in just waiting around, started making the rounds and the first of those places was the barn, where these loudly and fervently squawking geese were located.  There they found our hero hiding among the unhappy geese.  They picked him up, dusted him off, told him the news, and then dragged away the determined Martin, by force, to be installed in his ecclesiastical seat. The geese had given Martin away.

As a commemoration of this event, in which the humble Martin hid among the geese, a goose feast is eaten on St. Martin’s Day – Nov 11 – believed by some to be the anniversary of the burial of St. Martin of Tours in 397.  This day would become a very important holiday for some – the last day of feasting before a 40-day pre-Christmas fast.  That period of fasting would later develop into the season of Advent.

Foods eaten

In some places, St. Martin’s Day also marks the tapping of new barrels of wine after the fall harvest, which means that the pleasant white wines of Slovakia might appear at that table as the appetizer is served – the liver of a fattened goose, or foie gras in French.  Broiled, delicate, luxurious.  It is an appetizer for the rest of the feast.

Soup is commonly eaten in Slovakia at all lunches and dinners, so this would be an ideal time for a soup of goose giblets.  But any traditional soup woulddo.  Preferably a light soup, as a heavy meal is still ahead.

Goose – crispy skinned, very fatty, dark, dark meat, this is a very rich meat, one that should be saved for feasting and probably saved for only special occasions.

Cabbage (kapusta, or zelí in the dialects closer to the Czech lands) – Usually a red cabbage, blanched, then fried or roasted, a little sweet and nicely seasoned. A staple of regional cuisine.

Lokše – a potato pancake made not from grated potatoes, but from mashed potatoes.  Lokše is ubiquitous at this time of year.  This will be a popular food at the Christmas markets that will open around Slovakia in the upcoming

Photo: SlovakCooking.com

weeks, topped with cinnamon, or ground and sweetened poppy seed, or grounds nuts, or honey, or a chocolate syrup.  Lokše is part of the tastes of the season.  The toppings are unlimited.  For the purpose of this feast lokše slathered with goose drippings or a pate of goose liver is most likely. Click here for a lokše recipe.

Slovaks say they have no Thanksgiving

It’s often said among Slovaks that they have no holiday like the American Thanksgiving with our roasted bird and family gatherings.  Our strange sweet potatoes are regularly pointed out in Slovak conversation about this American holiday.  Sweet potatoes seem like a great sacrilege in Slovakia, where cultural cuisine tends to be built around the potato and people are generally not fond of overly sweet foods.  Most often this is pointed out by those who’ve never tasted a sweet potato.  But, the mere image of a potato that is sweet seems to indicate that there is something wrong with that American culture and their unusual Thanksgiving celebration.

And if all that sweetness from the potatoes was not enough, Americans also make a sweet and spicy “squash cake” as one might translate “pumpkin pie.” Everyone enjoys that odd dessert before they retire to the living room to watch something strange on television.   Our barbaric games of “rugby” (as American football is often referred to in Slovakia) shown on TV with that strange ball that the entire family gathers around to watch is a sport that – I am told time and again – could not possibly become popular in Slovakia, let alone be multigenerational and worthy of gathering the family around.

And in some ways it’s true.  Slovaks don’t have a holiday quite like Thanksgiving.  They have many harvest celebrations.  They have many festivals with seemingly pagan roots that have been adapted by Christians or harvest festivals that continue to appear rather pagan.

At the same time, they don’t really need family events in the same way that our busy culture does.  They have a different appreciation for family.

Appreciation for family

Despite living in Bratislava, despite growing up in Bratislava, despite having parents who grew up in Bratislava, it’s not unusual for a person to have very close family contacts in a village in Slovakia.  For those who were raised in a village, but now live in Bratislava, going back to the village for the weekend most weekends is not uncommon.

The standing room only (every seat taken and every inch of hallway occupied) trains testify to the weekend migration of Slovaks back home, for no other reason than “it’s the weekend.”  These aren’t trips home for their parents’ anniversary, or grandma’s 70th birthday celebration, these are trips home that really take place for no other reason that “it’s the weekend.”

Being among immediate and extended family during the weekend is so common that I constantly hear about it when I ask about weekend plans.  Family members play a significant role in the weekend plans of many – a trip to see grandma, a trip to see mom and dad, a visit with a godfather or godmother, or maybe an aunt and uncle are visiting from the village.

Slovaks have familial networks that are virtually impossible for me to understand.  Everyone has many levels of relatives and everyone seems to remembers all their relatives, even those many generations removed, as if there were some type of charting software in the mind of every Slovak.  But I have no memory for such things.  It’s a talent that apparently left my family bloodline due to a lack of training.

For me, Thanksgiving has always been an important time for family. Slovaks don’t seem to need an excuse to get together with family.

In terms of family or friends sitting down to a celebratory harvest feast with a big bird at the center – the “husacie hody” or “goose feast” that takes place on and around St. Martin’s day are it. These three or four hour feasts appear to have some similarities to Thanksgiving – the gathering, the feasting, the season, the time of the year, the feeling of bounty and relaxation.  This is the time of year when geese born in the spring naturally reach a mature size and weight and it simply makes sense that this would be the time of the year to eat a goose.  It’s a rich meal at a time when the geese have matured and are more plentifully available at market.

From the birth of Martin of Tours just south of here, to the prominent cult of St. Martin that formed in the transdanubian Hungarian lands, to the cathedral in Bratislava named “Sväty Martin” or “Saint Martin,” to the celebrations of wine and feasting on geese, to the fact that so many Slovaks name their sons and daughter Martin and Martina, I’m left with the feeling that a spirit of Martin of Tours has a deep and meaningful place in this culture.  From the cruel and overbearing Roman Empire, from the cruelest of its entities – the Roman legion, came an officer who would shiver on that cold winter night, so that an unknown beggar would not have to be so cold.

What it means that he’s taken such a meaningful place in the culture, I can’t say.  That he has that place is very clear.

Allan Stevo is a writer from Chicago.  In the month of November 100% of the proceeds of sales on AllanStevo.com will be donated to the Fresh Food Program of the Food Bank of New York City.  Click here to buy the book _Somewhere between Bratislava and DC_  Click here to download that book.

What are childhood celebrations that you remember strongly?  What were the foods?  Who was invited? Do the Slovaks (or other immigrants) that you know (or knew) seem to have any difference in familial relations than the assimilated Americans you know?  Does it make a difference if you are “fresh off the boat” or a few generations removed?

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Comments

  • I am going to Slovakia next week visiting my family and first thing my cousin Jana who lives in Bratislava said:”Great, we are going for wine tasting and goose feast together!”
    So,I will be there and can’t wait. Lokse, goose patte,wine,
    hmm, hmm good.
    PS: You are right about the sweet potatoes, it sound gross to all my friends when I talk about this tradition, even I learned to prepare it and like it. The foods from can (yams, pumkin, cranberry sauce) are the oddest things to us.
    You do not eat food from can unless you go camping, meal is always specialy made at home from fresh ingriedents.Especialy for holidays.

  • Nice article. My parents didn’t celebrate St. Martin’s Day. I only learned of it from other Slovaks that I have become acquainted with. However, my mother did bake goose on Thanksgiving.

    My parents celebrated just Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. A brother with his Asian family participated. This changed after my mother died. I, being unmarried, became excluded from holiday gatherings at my brother’s house. And my father yearned for visits from his sons and grandsons in between the holidays, which never materialized. So I would say, mine is not a typical, close-knit, Slovakian family. The traditions disappeared when the ‘rock’ of the family, my mother, passed away.

  • Cynthia,
    Goose on Thanksgiving? I love it. It’s like a Slovak/American cross of the holiday. Turkey’s too darn dry. Goose is my new favorite : ) Your mother sounds like she knew how to keep the good traditions. As far as I’m concerned going from goose to turkey is a downgrade.

    What a rough situation. Sometimes people can be really uncaring. The situation you described must have been very difficult on your father especially. I’m sorry that it went that way.

    Thank you for writing.

    Allan

  • I have learned a lot of things… in my family we’ve never celebrated St Martin nor eaten the goose (I think this is especially western slovakia habit). For me, St Martin was the day when we waited for snow to come (Svaty Martin prichadza na bielom koni – st martin comes on white horse, which means it’s usually snowing). But you’re right about the family members meeting every weekend – this is also coming from small distances.

  • Katka,
    Thank you for the note and for the piece of wisdom – “Svaty Martin prichadza na bielom koni – st martin comes on white horse, which means it’s usually snowing.” This year the prediction wasn’t true in Bratislava. It didn’t snow this year til the night of 26/27 November. Wishing you well.
    Allan

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