Christian liturgy and peasant traditions meet on November 11
Celebrating a saint’s day is nothing new in Italy. Every day of the Italian liturgical calendar has a saint associated with it, meaning that any given Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, etc there’s a saint being honoured somewhere in the boot-shaped country.
Some get better festivities than others – cities’ patron saints are celebrated with big processions or full-on public holidays, for instance. Others are remembered with quieter celebrations. Others still have their day tied to Italy’s most rural history, as a testament to the fact that the sacred and the profane have long gone hand in hand in the Bel Paese.
San Martino, on November 11, is a case in point – and one of our favourite saints’ days. Why, you ask? Simple: The anniversary marks the opening of new wine barrels across the nation, aka the first time of the year to try ‘novello’ wine (what we also call ‘vino nuovo’). As an old Italian saying reminds us: “A San Martino ogni mosto diventa vino” (On Saint Martin’s day, every must turns into wine). And we’re here for it.
Here’s all you need to know about the ‘holiday.’
Who was San Martino?
Born in Pannonia – a region of the Roman Empire that now corresponds in part to modern Hungary – Martin of Tours was a Roman Empire soldier-turned-bishop-turned saint who lived in the 4th century AD.
The story goes that while he was riding at the gates of the city of Amiens, he noticed a poorly dressed beggar who was shivering from the cold. Moved with pity, he cut his own military cloak in half and shared it with the man. That same night Jesus appeared to him in a dream wearing the half-cloak he had given to the beggar and thanking him for his compassionate gesture.
The dream was transformative: Martino left the army to become a full-fledged Christian and devoted his life to help others – country people in particular (Martino himself came from a peasant family).
While he died on November 8, 397 AD, his funeral wasn’t celebrated until the 11th, which is exactly when Italians celebrate him.
FUN FACT: It is said that at the moment Martino shared his cloak, the sun came out. That’s why, to this day, the first weeks of November are called Estate di San Martino in Italy, to indicate a short period of time characterised by relatively good, warm weather.
A double toast
So how does the saint relate to new wine? It’s mostly a matter of timing. In the peasant tradition, November 11 – or early November in general – was the usual date for farmers to end their ‘contracts’ after the harvesting season, and renew their agreements for the following year. The occasion was marked by drinking the ‘first’ wine they had worked so hard on, and as it coincided with the festivity of San Martino, the two – the saint and the vino – came to be commemorated together.
San Martino is still honoured widely around Italy (if just as an excuse to try some wine), and, for those working in vineyards and wineries, it’s a big deal.
‘Tis is the time to pop open a bottle of vino and spread the love, even if the wines aren’t quite ready yet. It’s a deep-rooted tradition that runs from north to south, with slight variations on the way it’s done depending on the region (of course).
Go to Veneto, and your vino novello will be paired with a cookie prepared in the shape of San Martino on horseback. In the Venetian area, in particular, children celebrate San Martino a bit like they do at Halloween, wandering from house to house singing and playing with improvised pots and asking for a sweet or a coin.
In Sicily, San Martino is celebrated with homemade biscuits dipped in the famous Passito di Pantelleria (if you happen to be there, ask for ‘abbagnati nn’o muscatu’).
Apulians gather over generous lunches, toasting with new wine and roasting chestnuts in front of the fireplace, though if you’re in Salento you’ll also get to try pittule, delicious pancakes made of fried bread eaten with vincotto or figs.
Abruzzo, too, is fond of the festivity, and celebrates it with anything from dances to bonfires – with new wine as the ever-present star of the show.
Which is all to say: take some time today to open a bottle, raise a glass and enjoy some vino – best if Italian of course.
San Martino is basically the prelude to the festive season that’s just around the corner.