The feast day of St Mark falls on 25th April, featuring a wealth of colourful and rich traditions throughout Europe. But there are also some interesting folk customs arising from the eve of the feast and involving paranormal phenomena and divination practises, such as the divining who is to die, since the ghosts of those who are destined to die during the year are believed to be passing into the church, in the yard of which they will be buried. St Marks Eve is also the time for divining for future husbands, as young maids make special use of divination to discover the identity of their true love and husband to be.
Image: An engraving of divination by nuts taken from the Chambers Bros. "Book of Days", Edinburgh, 1869.
In the northern England, it was believed that if a person, on the St Mark's Eve, watched in the church porch from eleven at night till one in the morning, he would have seen the apparitions of all those who would be buried in the churchyard during the next year. The similar superstition is connected with St. Mark's Eve, linked obviously with the Walpurgis Night (on May 1 eve), when a “procession of the dead” could be seen, including the already dead persons or the ones going to die. In the countryside on St Mark's Eve people used to riddle out all the ashes on the hearth-stone over night, and a footstep impressed on them in the morning indicated a person who was going to die during the year.
Several other customs are connected with the divinations of love. A tradition holds that a young woman can see the face of her future husband appear on her smock by holding it before the fire on St Mark's Eve...
A popular song says:
On St Mark's eve, at twelve o'clock,
The fair maid will watch her smock,
To find her husband in the dark,
By praying unto good St. Mark.
This practice required to hang up the smock at the fire before going to bed. When all the family went to bed, the girl stayed up and waited until the vision of her future husband appeared turning the garment. A similar divination was performed with nuts. A row of nuts was placed amongst the hot embers on the hearth, one for each maiden, who whispered the name of the beloved man. If the nut jumped away from the embers, the love would be successful, but if the nut burned completely, it meant the contrary... "If you love me, pop and fly, If not, lie there silently".
Hungary: the blessing of the grain
St Mark's day is a very important feast in Hungary, where it is associated with the Blessing of the Wheat, or Buza Szentelo.
The celebration is held in several rural villages in Hungary with a long procession from churches to camps. The procession is led by flag-girls in traditional dresses, holding banners in the wind. Singing ancient hymns, it arrives at the field, where the priest kneels and pronounces the blessing, then all people return home with an ear of the consecrated corn. Thereafter the priest blesses scythes and agricultural tools before the beginning of the harvest. Wreaths and bouquets of corn are used as decorations on this day.
In the countryside, in the Heves or in Alfold, even in popular language these issues can be found: people said that "things will go as the curly bran" meaning success at work or doing the things in the right way, taking this saying from the instructions to the miller’s aides, when they were told how the wheat must be grounded. Elsewhere it was recommended the way to knead and bake the bread, so that it comes full of holes inside, the so-called "beds of angels", like bubbles or voids inside the bread, where angels could rest according to the popular belief.
During a famine, when lacking bread, parents told to the hungry children before bedtime that the bread had got tired of waiting and had gone to bed before them.
St Mark’s feast was an excellent opportunity to produce all kinds of breads and pastries, donuts and cakes, bizarre-shaped sweets in shape of rooster and hen for the bride and groom, cakes like grinding wheel for pregnant women, spicy bread in the shape of a horse or with a religious theme, even Bretzel and Strudel from Debrecen in Budapest.
Lithuania: St Mark's feast or Ðventas Morkus
In Lithuania St Mark is regarded as guardian of the harvest. Many processions take place in the countryside, leading from churches to the fields to celebrate the feast and get the Saint's protection for fields from storms, hail, draught and thunder, to get a rich harvest.
There is a number of bans that must be observed on this feast to have the request fulfilled. Besides eating meat, it was prohibited to "touch the earth", so no plowing and no digging. Moreover, people had to dress properly and avoid heavy work. In case the rules were ignored, it was likely that ice, hail or flood would have destroyed the crops. This day was considered the best to start sowing rue, carrots and peas to have them tastier and larger.
Divination had a strong importance for young women. They used to weave three wreaths, one for themselves, and the other two to give them male names. Then all the wreaths were thrown into a well and sprinkled with hemp seeds. After the sunset, the girls looked into the well to see which would be their future husband.
Another way of divination was to write male names on twelve pieces of paper, tie three pieces into each corner of their handkerchief and place it under the pillow before going to bed. In the morning the girl would untie one corner of the handkerchief and take one piece of paper. The name on the paper would reveal the future husband to the girl.
Italy: Canestredde of St Mark
Canestredde is a typical sweet from S. Marco in Lamis, a village near the suggestive Gargano area in south Italy. The locals prepare and enjoy these cakes for Easter and for St Mark's feast, when the famous procession of Fracchie takes place (a popular religious festival, three centuries old, held every Holy Friday to revoke the Passion of Christ). The Fracchie are huge torches made of tree trunks split longways and cone-shaped, then filled with fagots, to be symbolically burnt in the evening and allow the Holy Mary, the Lady of Sorrows, to go for search of her dead Son.
Ingredients: 3.5 kg of flour, 400 grams of lard, 500 g of baker's yeast, 20 eggs, milk, 1 kg of yeast, 1.5 kg of sugar, 2 lemons grated.
Place the flour and pour in the center yeast diluted in water, then add the eggs, melted lard, sugar, and lemon zest.
Knead the dough, softening it with milk and leave it for one day;
then work again the dough until it becomes smooth;
cut it in sticks of 2 cm thick and 50 cm long and twist them like a pigtail;
brush the surface with the yellow of an egg and bake.