The relationship between the feast of the saint and the goose goes back to medieval times. The first association appears in iconography in 1171.
The goose was brought up as secondly to pig, when it was not possible to have pigs, as it served as a rich reserve of fat and protein during the winter. The Egyptians raised this bird, while the Greeks, as described by Homer in the Iliad, used goose as a childhood companion and guardian. The goose became especially important for the Romans. Geese were put as guardians at the temple of the goddess Juno, in the Capitol. During the Battle of the Allia and the sack of Rome by the Gauls in 390 BC, these very birds, according to the legend, prevented the Capitol from being taken by surprise by Brennus, a chieftain of one of the Gallic tribes, by making a great uproar.
In the Middle Ages Charlemagne promoted the breeding of geese in monasteries and among farmers as a food reserve. The goose did not have exclusively culinary significance, so that goose paw was used as a trademark or emblem for the master builders of cathedrals, called "Jars" ("geese" in French).
The further spread of the goose was due to the Jewish community. For religious reasons Jewish could not eat pork, so they prepared goose salami and ham. After expulsion of the Jewish diaspora from Spain, England, France and Germany, between the fifteenth and sixteenth century, they moved to the other territories over Europe, bringing with them the culinary traditions of goose meat.
Eating goose became common in the late autumn, just near the feast of St. Martin, as it was the time of slaughter. In addition, the farmers paid the tributes to the nobles mainly in kind, using the products of the earth including geese. With the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the period of winter rest for fields and farmers, their servants and maids received also their annual wage in the form of growing flock.
This way of payment was registered in Italy until the early twentieth century, when tenant farmers used it to pay a part of the taxes to the landowners, as goose was an important exchange good. One of the examples illustrating that tradition was the "Fair of geese and boots of St. Andrea" in Portogruaro, Italy, where farmers went to the market and exchanged boots with the geese.
A Venetian saying tells: "Who does not eat goose on St Martin’s day, will not earn any money”. It is similar to that known over all Europe: "One who does not eat goose on this day remains hungry throughout the year". The goose has always been a good omen, hence the custom to use its breast to forecast the winter: if the goose breast is white, winter will be hard, if pink, winter will be mild.
The procession and begging children
The most heartfelt moments of the feast are the procession with alms collection and traditional songs and the lighting of lanterns and bonfires. Widespread across Europe, from Malta to Estonia, the begging was the custom of asking money, gifts and food as an act of charity, very popular in past centuries. Today the children are in charge of the tradition, performing the procession on St. Martin’s Eve and carrying candles or lanterns made of paper, pumpkins or cucumbers and carved like masks. After performing a rich repertoire of traditional songs, stories and religious songs, children receive sweets and some coins. Often the procession is led by a man on horseback dressed like St. Martin, passing in front of every house.
The St. Martin's procession is very important in Estonia, where young people in masks and costumes move from farm to farm, singing songs, telling jokes and wishing the families good luck for crops, livestock and relatives, in return for sweets and fruit. This practice is considered a remnant of the ancestors worship. This procession is made up mainly of young males masked as bears, goats and sheep, and includes at least one disguised woman. All the participants follow the so-called "Old Martin". St. Martin was actually the patron saint of beggars, and this has contributed to the custom of begging for gifts of charity on this day.
St. Martin’s bread
St. Martin's bread is a traditional recipe for the feast, widespread from northern to southern Italy:
Take half a ladle of chestnut flour and half a ladle of wheat flour and mix very well with 40 gr. of yeast melted in a glass of warm water. Leave it rise for at least an hour. Mix the obtained sourdough with 350 gr. of wheat flour, 250 gr. of chestnut flour and about three glasses of water, add two tablespoons of oil and a pinch of salt. Work the dough and let it rise for two hours, covering it with a cloth and putting in a warm place. Then add 250 gr. of nuts in the dough, make the shape of an oval cake and bake it in oven at 180 degrees for about 40 minutes. The result is a dark brown cake.
The new wine
Though Martin was not associated with wine during all his lifetime, and no mention of Saint Martin's connection with viticulture is made by Gregory of Tours or other early hagiographers, he is nonetheless credited with a prominent role in spreading wine-making throughout the Touraine region of France and facilitating the planting of many vines. Another legend tells that Martin, being pursued by enemies, took refuge in an empty barrel to escape. Due to this episode, Martin became the patron of viticulture, as well as winemakers, innkeepers and drunkards, even considering that the saint was abstemious and moderate.
What is sure is that the St. Martin's Day festivities fall in line with the time when the season’s first new wines are opened. The period of St. Martin's feast coincides in fact with the transformation of must into wine. In the past it was also the time to taste the new wine and to make the racking of the one of the previous year. This is probably the real reason why several wine traditions are also part of the St. Martin's Day celebrations and why he is also known - according to a folk saying - as ‘the judge of new wine’, meaning that this is the time when the new wine is ready to be drunk.
Another popular saying used among the clergy of Alsace region of France tells: "Post Martinum, vinum bonum" (i.e. "After Martin’s day, wine is good"), confirmed by an Italian saying "At St Martin’s day must becomes wine”. Another saying tells: "On St. Martin’s Day open the barrel of a good wine”. This custom became so widespread that the Council of Auxerre (the bishopric of Auxerre was a former French Roman Catholic diocese with the seat in the city of Auxerre in Burgundy, eastern France), held in 578, forbade drinking in honor of the Saint.
From the late 4th century to the late Middle Ages great part of Europe engaged in a period of fasting beginning just on the day after St. Martin's Day, November 11, and lasting 40 days, thus called "Quadragesima Sancti Martini" in Latin ("the forty days of St. Martin). So, on St. Martin's Eve, people ate and drank very heartily one last time before they started to fast.
Below “The Wine of Saint Martin's Day”, a painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1526/1530–1569), a Flemish Renaissance painter and printmaker known for his landscapes and peasant scenes. Bruegel depicts here the peasant celebrations of the very popular and much beloved festival, the St. Martin's Day, which is celebrated on 11 November and involves drinking the first wine of the season.
Source: Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1526/1530–1569) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons