Latter-Day Martinmas

For all those of you fretting that the Christmas lights went up a week ago and the songs started playing in the shops even before that, when everybody (at least in the United States) knows that you shouldn't start worrying about Christmas until after Thanksgiving, it may be reassuring to realize that we Americans actually start the Christmas season somewhat late. Okay, so friends in England have been making the same complaint about the precocious tendencies of town councils and retailers to want to get us thinking about Christmas, but eight hundred or a thousand or even twelve hundred years ago, they, too (that is, the town councils and retailers) would already have been behind.

According to certain Carolingian sources (which I would reference if I hadn't left them at work, but one of them was Theodulf of Orléans' instructions for parish priests, I'm pretty sure), there were three major fasts during the liturgical year, each lasting forty days: a fast before Easter (a.k.a. Lent), a fast after Pentecost, and a fast before Christmas. Now, since Advent proper only begins four Sundays before Christmas and the fasts did not include Sundays, this means that the fast must have started somewhat earlier, around, say, November 11*, that is St. Martin's Day.

And, indeed, well into the seventeenth century, even in post-Reformation England, St. Martin's Day was observed as a kind of harvest carnival, famous for its meats and wines. No turkeys, of course, since they were still far away in another part of the world, but pigs and cows most definitely. It is a little unclear (at least to me at the moment) whether the pre-Christmas fast was kept throughout the Middle Ages,** but I seem to recall one of the texts that I've read for my course on the later Middle Ages mentioning it. Certainly, thanks to James W. Walsh***, I am certain that St. Martin's Day was kept as a day of special feasting throughout the later Middle Ages in England.

Which means, if you think about it, that it is not that the town councils and retailers are early when they start putting up Christmas decorations the second week of November. Rather, Thanksgiving as we celebrate it in the United States is actually late. We should have already killed the fatted calf, drunk ourselves silly, and be spending today not feasting, but fasting in anticipation of the coming of the Lord. Silly Protestants, confusing the calendar. Mind you, the original New England Puritans didn't celebrate Christmas at all; they thought it was just a pagan debauch.

*Coincidentally, now kept by Americans as Veteran's Day and by the English as Armistice Day. It would be interesting to know whether the signers of the peace at Compiègne were aware of this coincidence when they met at "the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month" of 1918. They certainly seem to have been aware of the elevens!
**Jerome specifically condemned the observance of "three Lents," but it seems to have taken hold throughout early medieval Europe, in the Gallican, Celtic British and Irish churches. See Pádraig P. Ó Néill, "Irish Observance of the Three Lents and the Date of the St. Gall Prisician (MS 904)," Ériu 51 (2000): 159-180.
***James W. Walsh, "Medieval English Martinmesse: The Archeology of a Forgotten Festival," Folklore 111 (2000): 231-254.


  1. Wow. Its been a while since I've read your blog. Lots of catching up too do. Trying to make some life changes that were long over due. Hope your year off went really well and that your book along with it. Thanks for all the interesting and enlightening reads.

  2. Hi, William, welcome back! The book is on hold at the moment now that I'm teaching again, but there's some big changes in store for me that I've been writing about, including getting a puppy. Look for more on dogs to come!


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