One of the things that I really loved that we did this year was celebrating Martinmas. St. Martin of Tours died November 11th, 397 A.D. He was a Roman soldier in his youth, and later became a bishop in Gaul. He was one of the first canonized saints to live a life as a Christian without facing persecution for it. (Though he did defend against heresies.) His feast day was celebrated at a time when the butchering and harvest were finished, and right before the men would go into the woods and cut wood and hunt.
People would celebrate by eating a roast goose and tasting the first wine from the year, have a parade with lanterns, and hold a bonfire. The days following became St. Martin’s Lent, sort of like lent before Christmas, but I’m not clear on if it was the origin of the start of Advent, or just so happened to overlap it. Advent used to be longer, and was later shortened to 4 weeks (marked by the 4 Sundays preceding Christmas).
(We don’t celebrate the feast days of all Saints… people usually recognize the ones that hold significance to their lives. It’s not uncommon for some parts of the world to celebrate the lives of some of the Saints. Some feast days have become incredibly popular, and even “secularized” by those who don’t understand the origins, such as St. Patrick’s, St. Valentine’s, and St. Nicholas’ Days.)
When we learned about St. Martin of Tours recently and the tradition of this feast day, it seemed like a fitting celebration for us to partake in. Martinmas has sometimes been referred to as a “Catholic Thanksgiving,” because it is a feast of thanksgiving, celebrating the harvest that is brought in each year, as well as the life of this great man. We’ll still be celebrating a traditional American Thanksgiving, but this was a smaller celebration with our family and a couple of close friends.
Since we just “discovered” Martinmas, and it was rather last-minute, I didn’t have a lot of time to plan ahead for this. Goose isn’t exactly easy to come by here, nor did we grow any, so we had a turkey instead. We didn’t have fresh wine, so we had hot apple cider. Instead of making Weckmann, we did gingerbread cookies shaped like men and candy canes to represent St. Martin and the bishop’s crosier. I made fresh bread in the morning to eat with dinner, and we served maple-glazed carrots, corn, and green beans with the turkey. I baked apple and pumpkin pie for dessert.
The kids made paper lanterns, but because we were flying by the seat of our pants, I didn’t have plans for these, and we couldn’t safely light them. We did, however, light one of our kerosene lanterns. While the origins of this aspect of tradition is clear, it’s thought that it is perhaps because St. Martin was a light to the pagan world around him.
The idea of “St. Martin’s Lent” also really caught our attention. The idea that we have a period of intermittent fasting leading up to Christmas seems like a really great addition to the Advent traditions we already have. I’m guilty of listening to Christmas music before Christmas, but we as a society take all of the anticipation out of Christmas Day when Christmas Day is just the beginning of a feast season celebrating the birth of Christ, culminating in Epiphany.
While Advent shouldn’t be a season of mourning, it should still be a season of preparation and anticipation. If we fast within that season of preparation, I feel like it could make the celebration of Christmas Day so much more joyful. This is something we aren’t expecting the kids to partake in this year, but Scott and I are going to try to make it a part of how we observe this season. We thought the idea of the Monday, Wednesday, Friday fast that was often observed seems appropriate for what this season is all about.
We also really made a point to celebrate All Saints and All Souls Days this year. The day before All Saints Day, we carved pumpkins to put out on the steps. Paul wanted St. Michael on his pumpkin, we made crosses on some, and another had a rosary drilled into it. At night we lit them up in vigil of All Saints Day. In the days leading up to All Saints Day, we started to come up with a list of Saints that are significant to our family, and learning more about their lives. For instance, St. Michael the Archangel (his feast day is our anniversary), St. Isadore (patron saint of farmers), or St. Maximillian (his feast day is one of our birthdays).
If you are interested in coming up with a list of saints for your family, you can search online for special names, dates, or things like your profession, interests, or vocation. Mary is one of many patron saints of mothers, St. Martin of Tours is a patron saint of winemakers and soldiers, St. Anne is the patron saint of seamstresses and people who sew. You can type in “saint feast day” and then a special date (like birthday or anniversary), or simply “St. ____” with a name that is significant to you (first name, middle name) and see if anything pops up.
On All Saints Day, the kids made paper puppets of one of the Saints that holds significance to them, and then wrote three facts about that saint on the back of the puppet. We took them with us when we went to a few houses and asked people if there was anyone they’d like us to pray for on All Souls day. We stopped at church in town for Mass, came home and prayed as a family after a dinner of pizza and soda, chips and cookies, and after that, we played some games as a family until bedtime.
We spent the day on All Souls day, praying for those whose names we collected the day before, and got the house in order, and in the evening, we went to Mass and lit a candle for a great-aunt who recently passed away. Since we’re just beginning to try to really dig into so many of the traditions of the different feast days, and we’re learning as we go, there hasn’t been a lot of pre-planning, so we’re going to take the things we did this year, look more into what is traditionally done, and grow our traditions.
“St. Nick’s” is the next feast we plan to celebrate as a family, and it’s one of the few that we actually have been celebrating for years. We don’t “do” Santa Claus because we celebrate St. Nicholas, and we like to keep his feast separate from Christmas (though we do leave stockings up through Christmas).
We generally use the red and white stockings partly because that’s what my family used growing up, but mostly because we can fit a little more into them. Some years, the kids get a pair of much needed winter pajamas in addition to the sweets, “gold coins”, and oranges, and those won’t fit in most socks or shoes, which is a little more traditional.
This year, I’ve got something a little different in mind and we may use the stockings the kids and I made a couple of years ago. Rather than the pajamas that we sometimes do, some of the kids have been asking for some special faith-related items. We’ll still have the usual sweets, gold coins, and oranges. And I decided to pick up Little Debbie’s Christmas Tree cakes to put in their stockings.
We still enjoy watching the Veggie Tales St. Nicholas movie every December 6th. I love that one. The story is great, but I love the songs, especially the Silly Songs with Larry one! The kids know the movie is a bit of silly fun mixed with the tradition of St. Nicholas, and we talk about who he was and why he was important. But we do sing the song “I Can Love Because God Loves Me” throughout the year.
I’ve varied some of the things we do on this day over the years, but I’m hoping to add a few more special traditions to the way we celebrate this feast day with the kids. We bake cookies throughout the Advent season, so I think it would be a good idea to always bake the same type of cookies every year on St. Nicholas’ feast day.
During Advent, we have a few different traditions that we typically do. The most important to the kids is the Advent wreath. They love when we light the candles, and they loving getting to blow them out. We light the first candle on the first Sunday of Advent and every day at dinner the following week. The next Sunday, we light both the first and second candle, and so on and so forth, culminating in lighting the white Christmas Candle.
Back when we were living in our old house, after I was shown the wonders of Pinterest, I came across some articles about celebrating Advent, which is what really helped me dig deeper for this holy season. I don’t remember where I found the suggestion for it, but somewhere I found The Jesse Tree book, and we read it every year. It follows the story of Jesus through the Bible, from Old Testament to New, and I really love that. It stresses the significance of the whole Bible in following Jesus’ linage.
We’ve also been wrapping the same 25 Christmas books every Advent since that same year at the old house. (I’d like to get a few new books soon so we can swap some of them out for something a little different.) The kids take turns opening books, and we open one a day from December 1st to the 25th, before bedtime.
Last year, we did Religious Education at home for the first time, and we were sent a packet of ornaments from the school for the “O Antiphons.” That was the first time I had even heard of them, but it was a nice addition to the Advent season, and it’s a great way to focus even more on the coming of Christ in the week leading up to Christmas Day.
There are a few other traditions we have, but one that we really love is singing. “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” is a favorite in our household, and is sung daily during Advent. Silent Night was a favorite bedtime song for some of the kids, and so they especially love it when we sing that on Christmas Eve.
Of course, we are all looking forward to the traditional American Thanksgiving we’ll celebrate with family next week, and the kids are already beginning to buzz about Christmas!
We’ve really been enjoying adding new traditions to our household over the years, things that continually point us towards God and his love for us. Do you have any favorite feast days that you celebrate?
Love and Blessings~ Danielle