Sunday, December 3, 2017


St. Martin und der Arme - Gebhard Fugel
Today is the first Sunday of Advent, and for many the ecclesiastical start of the Christmas season, for me the Christmas season begins somewhat earlier. In November as a matter of fact, though rather than refer to this period specifically as the Christmas season (though in my heart it is), I refer to this more generically as the holiday season, which culminates in the magnificence of Christmas Day.

The holiday season begins, for me, on the 11th of November, and it has little to do with Veterans Day. November the 11th is the Feast of St Martin, something I knew nothing about until I was fortunate enough to be stationed in Germany. I like St. Martin, for he was a soldier, later a bishop, then a saint. Tradition holds that -
Saint Martin of Tours was a Roman soldier who was baptized as an adult and became a monk. The most famous legend concerning him was that he had once cut his cloak in half to share with a beggar during a snowstorm, to save the latter from the cold. That night, he dreamt of Jesus, wearing the half-cloak and saying to the angels, "Here is Martin, the Roman soldier who is now baptized; he has clothed me." (Source)
From what I have read, Martin was the son of a tribune in the Roman army, born in what is now Hungary, he spent most of his childhood in Pavia, Italy, then lived for most of his adult life in France. In Latin his name is Martinus, there was probably more to his name than just Martinus, but these things are often lost to history. Particularly where the saints are involved as history focuses on the saintly bits and not what went before.

Every year in our small village in Germany the Feast of St Martin was celebrated. First by a procession through the main street of town ending in a small square where a bonfire awaited. The procession was led by schoolkids carrying paper lanterns which they had made in school. It was most colorful.

I vaguely recall a band being in the procession and the whole was led by a man on a horse wearing a Roman style helmet and wearing a facsimile of a red Roman military cloak. I recall the horse being white and rather large in a stocky, rather than tall, kind of way. Nevertheless, a very large animal.

When the procession arrived at the square, the bonfire (die Martinsfeuer) would be lit, then the act of charity performed by St Martin would be reenacted. A man on the ground, looking rather disheveled and beggarly, would extend a hand to the proud Roman soldier upon horseback.

The man portraying St Martin would be riding around the bonfire while the beggar did his thing. Then the soldier would notice the beggar and halt his mighty steed. Sweeping the cloak from his shoulders he would then offer it to the beggar, who would then gratefully accept it and then proceed to bundle himself up against the chill of the night. (In the original tale, St Martin cuts his cloak in half, sharing it with the shivering beggar.)

It was all very solemn as I recall. At the end the children would receive der Weckmann -

In parts of Austria, Germany, and Switzerland the Martinstag observance is a children’s affair. Carrying paper, candle-lit lanterns they have made in school, the young children take part in an evening procession, sometimes led by a rider on a white horse, emulating St. Martin and his red cloak. In some places the lantern procession ends with a Martinsfeuer (Martin bonfire). Depending on the region, at the end of the lantern procession, the children are rewarded with a cookie called a “Weckmann” (Rhineland) or a “Stutenkerl” (Westphalia). (Source)
I remember, with some amusement, the year in which our American JAG (Judge Advocate General) was late to the parade. The Missus Herself and his wife* were great friends and we all went to Martinstag together that year. Well, he arrived somewhat late and didn't go home to change into civilian clothes. So there he was,** marching down the main drag of the little town of Waldfeucht, unbuttoned overcoat flapping in the breeze, flight cap at a racy angle, lit cigar clenched in his teeth, waving to the Germans, who thought it all great fun. (The major was quite popular in the village and on the base as well. A super guy. While the Air Force called him a lawyer, he certainly was a fighter pilot at heart.)

St Martin is often venerated as a military saint, one of those soldiers of the Roman Army who converted to Christianity, rejecting the Imperial Cult and sometimes suffering torture and even martyrdom for their beliefs.

Do you know where the terms "chaplain" and "chapel" came from? (Hint, one Latin term for a cloak or cape is cappa.)
While Martin was a soldier in the Roman army and stationed in Gaul (modern-day France), he experienced a vision, which became the most-repeated story about his life. One day as he was approaching the gates of the city of Amiens, he met a scantily clad beggar. He impulsively cut his military cloak in half to share with the man. That night, Martin dreamed of Jesus wearing the half-cloak he had given away. He heard Jesus say to the angels: "Martin, who is still but a catechumen, clothed me with this robe." In another version, when Martin woke, he found his cloak restored to wholeness. The dream confirmed Martin in his piety, and he was baptized at the age of 18.

The part kept by himself became the famous relic preserved in the oratory of the Merovingian kings of the Franks at the Marmoutier Abbey near Tours. During the Middle Ages, the supposed relic of St. Martin’s miraculous cloak, (cappa Sancti Martini) was carried by the king even into battle, and used as a holy relic upon which oaths were sworn. The cloak is first attested in the royal treasury in 679, when it was conserved at the palatium of Luzarches, a royal villa that was later ceded to the monks of Saint-Denis by Charlemagne, in 798/99.

The priest who cared for the cloak in its reliquary was called a cappellanu, and ultimately all priests who served the military were called cappellani. The French translation is chapelains, from which the English word chaplain is derived.

A similar linguistic development took place for the term referring to the small temporary churches built for the relic. People called them a "capella", the word for a little cloak. Eventually, such small churches lost their association with the cloak, and all small churches began to be referred to as "chapels". (Source)

While St Martin's Day may not, on the surface, seem to have much in common with Christmas, to me it does, in at least two very significant ways. The lanterns carried by the kids on that dark night in late fall represent to me the light that Christ brought into the world. And what could be more Christian than St Martin sharing his cloak with a man who had nothing, symbolizing the giving of gifts at Christmas-time?

There is a sadness there as well, personally. Our last St Martin's Day in Germany we were unable to enjoy the procession, the bonfire, St Martin upon his horse and his act of charity, and the Weckmann (which The Nuke and The WSO remember to this day). For we had a very sick cat to care for and unfortunately mourn as our little Tiger died that very night. On St Martin's Day.

I learned a lesson that day. Don't take your blessings for granted. Don't get too swept up in the festivities and the bright lights and decorations. Be mindful of those who don't have as much. Give what you can, when you can, to try and help others.

As St Martin did.

* Everyone always found it hysterical that these two great friends were named Song and Carol. No, really.
** Variant of the SJC.


  1. Hey Old AFSarge;

    *wow*, I was a kid and my Dad was stationed in Germany and I participated in these things because we lived in the economy in a small town near Ktown. We lived there several years and later on when I returned as a GI and did 5 more years there, I remembered the start of the Christmas season in Germany and going to the market and getting some "Gluvein". Damm good memories.

  2. I've never been over during the holiday season, unlucky I guess? Gingerbread men? Or such, interesting! My family always had their end of the season about Jan 11th.

    1. The Weckmann are made of a sweet dough. Gingerbread would work for me!

  3. Thanks Sarge, for removing a little of my ignorance regarding St. Martin. After Confirmation in the Episcopal Church my dad and I attended early Sunday service(least I thought it was early) in the chapel downstairs, now I know. Ya... helping others when you can is a good thing.

  4. Very interesting and informative! I once knew an "Uncle Martin", but he wasn't from around here!

  5. Interesting. I'm a confirmed Catholic and half-German Army brat who spent half of my childhood in Germany, yet I never knew any of this. A very inspiring story....

  6. Dratted floaters and aging eyes -- I'd thought I read, "I, like St. Martin, for he was a soldier, later a bishop, then a saint." Wait, what?! As with raging tinnitus vs human speech, I tend to get surprised for all the wrong reason.

    1. Funny things those commas.

      (I hear you on the floaters. I have 'em and they're annoying little bastids.)

  7. Reading your narrative about St. Martin brought to mind the fictional Brother Cadfael series of mystery novels set in the Middle Ages. Cadfael heard the monastic call after having been a soldier and a sailor, thus bringing a rather more worldly slant to the monastery.

    1. Sounds like an interesting series, I might need to hunt that down.

  8. I usually learn somethin' here. Today was no exception. Thanks for the history and language lesson!


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