Elf November (Sint Maarten) by Londile Dlamini

Published on 2 November 2016 at 00:00

History of Sint Martin

Sint Martin, Saint Martin’s Day, Feast of Saint Martin, Martinstag, Martinmas , Martin le Miséricordieux or the feast of Saint Martin of Tours (when I hear “feast” I immediately think of a table in the Roman empire decked in all the delicious foods of that time… mhhh. Ok I am back). This celebration is known and called by different names in various parts of the world, but it is celebrated all over on the 11th November.  The holiday is said to have originated in France and then was dispersed to England, Germany and all the way to Eastern Europe. The festival is supposed to have a different meaning to different parts of the world where it is celebrated. The significant and common meaning that it marks the end of autumn and the beginning of the natural winter.


There seems to be a lot more of what this celebration represents in different regions and when the festivities actually begin. Countries such as Austria, the children walk on the eve of the 11th and on the day as well. However, the legend is very consistent on how it started; where it began; its significance and symbolism. Sint Martin was known as the patron and champion for children and the have-nots. Legend tells us that he was a Roman soldier who got baptized later in life and became a Monk and was kind. He spent most of his simple life in solitary and then one day he met a beggar during a snowstorm. Driven by compassion for this beggar he cut a piece of his cloak and shared it with the said beggar so that he will not die from the cold. He later learned through his dream that night that beggar was, in fact, Jesus himself. 


How is St. Martin celebrated in the Netherlands?

In some parts of the world where St. Martin is observed, it is marked by a bonfire at the end of the festivities where the lanterns (lampionnetjes) are tossed. In some parts, it is celebrated by blessing the first wine by the Bishop or a man dressed as a Bishop, some countries they celebrate by having a goose meal that the people in the medieval times apparently had on this day (the peasants and those of lesser fortune had either a hen or duck instead of goose (on a side note I would have enjoyed the life where duck was considered cheap because I have not met a duck that wasn’t overpriced J)).

In the Netherlands, there is no goose, at least from what I know and what I could find. Maybe if someone did a few household anthropological research they could find a few in the corners of the country who might also aim to mimic the ways this day was celebrated during the medieval times; I cannot be certain although on the research point of view it will be interesting to know how todays celebrations have changed through time and if there are people who have kept the old ways of observance of different special days. 


The children usually make the lanterns a few days or a week before the actual night. This is generally done during the school hours within the classroom. I have no knowledge if the teachers go through the history, the significance of the holiday to them in today’s times.  This combines art and science because some lanterns combine the making of the shell that carries the light and they have to figure out how to make the light stay on and not fall out or shift.


On the night of the St. Martin, some cities organise a walkabout, and the children would carry their lanterns and sing songs that are typical for the St. Martin parade. The procession is led by someone who either carries a makeshift figure who symbolises St. Martin. Some carry a bell to help guide the crowds. In some countries, a man leads the parade on a white horse and dressed in robes that are believed to be the same as what St, Martin wore the night he helped the beggar. In the Netherlands St. Martin isn’t necessarily celebrated as a collective festival. That is why it is common that children accompanied by parents/ guardians go door-to-door, they ought to ring the bell, and upon the door being opened, they sing a St. Martin song with valor and after that are rewarded, for lack of a better word, with candy. My husband told me a story of his childhood whereby a buurman (neighbour) stood outside braaiing (char-grilling) hot dogs. That was one of his fondest memories of this day. Perhaps the neighbour man had the great idea of celebrating with a feast as it was done in the past.


Other countries that celebrate Sint Martin and their traditions

As the spread of St, Martin grew from France to Scandinavia and to the England, it lost and at the same time gained new characteristics that make them similar and unique due to the region and country. The countries on record that celebrate St. Martin are Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Slovenia, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Great Britain, Ireland, Sicily, Latvia, Malta, Poland, Portugal, Spain, St Maarten (so befitting), Sweden, Switzerland, United States and of the Netherlands. They all have their own ways of celebrating the day, for instance in Belgium (Flanders) the procession is led by a man on a horse dressed as St. Martin, while in Croatia the mast is turned into wine by the host or someone dressed like a Bishop blesses the wine and the wine even has a chosen godfather to make sure it grows up with a wide range of morals and is also streets smart.

In Slovakia, everyone who shares a name with the saint gets a present since this is their second birthday. In Estonia, Martinmas signifies the merging customs of Western Europe with pagan Balto-Finnic traditions, that includes some remnants of worshipping the and the year-end celebrations before Christianity. In Germany, it is a time to connect with neighbours through a meal whereby a pig is roasted and shared with the neighbours, or they celebrate by sharing a specially made pretzel that is commonly shaped into men. The children also in some regions do as the Dutch kids do, going from house to house singing songs. In Sicily, Portugal, rather they celebrate with wine as November is winemaking season, there is an especially made dense bread is dipped into Moscato (in Sicily). These are some of the examples of how countries differ in their manner of observing this day.


Some selected songs for St. Martin

In search for Sint Martin’s songs, I found this website very useful it includes a melody that can help you along. These are the commonly sung songs although there is much more available.  These are the commonly sung songs although there is much more available. 

11 November

Elf november is de dag,

dat mijn lichtje

dat mijn lichtje

Elf november is de dag

Dat mijn lichtje branden mag

Twaalf november is de dag

dat ik mag snoepen

dat ik mag snoepen

Twaalf november is de dag

dat ik mag snoepen de hele dag.


Sinte, sinte Maarten

Sinte Sinte Maarten
de koeien hebben staarten

geef een appel of een peer

dan kom ik dit jaar niet meer




Sinte Sinte Maarten

De koeien hebben staarten

De meisjes hebben rokjes aan

Daar komt Sint Martinus aan




Sinte Sinte Maarten
De kalv'ren dragen staarten,
De koeien dragen horens

De kerken dragen torens

Hier woont een rijke man

Die veel geven kan

Veel geven hoeft jij niet,

Al is het maar een suikerbiet!


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