Martinmas: Celebrating the Oncoming Winter

We don’t always think of the medieval period as being a time of parties. But people then actually celebrated a variety of special days, many named for saints. Often the saint day observances coincided with earlier (pagan) celebrations.

On Nov. 11, St. Martin’s Day or Martinmas was, indeed, a major holiday. The Martinmas feast, celebrated the end of autumn and the ‘natural’ beginning of winter.

Calendar page for November from Lambert le Begue’s Psalter. (Notice the astrological sign of Sagittarius in lower right. Le Begue died in 1177. He founded the Béguine monastery of St Christophe in Liège,)

By November the autumn harvest was complete and the land prepared for winter crops. Time to get ready for the challenging days of winter. Hogs that had been turned out into the woods in October to fatten on acorns were brought in and slaughtered, and the meat preserved. Cattle were butchered, as well, keeping only those few used to begin production in the spring. (Food was scarce enough; extra for animals wasn’t available.)

In fact, the term Martinmas (or martlemass) cattle was applied to cattle butchered at this time of year. And the hog slaughter is reflected in the old English saying his “His Martinmas will come as it does to every hog,” meaning “he will get his comeuppance” or “everyone must die” (

Because of this widespread butchering, November was often called Bloodmonth. Sounds gruesome, doesn’t it? Actually, it refers to this period of slaughtering animals to be preserved for food during the long, cold months ahead.

The Old English name for November was ‘Blotmonth’ literally “blood-month,” “the time when the early Saxons prepared for winter by sacrificing animals, which they then butchered and stored for food” ( The name November came from “ninth month” which was where November fell in the old Roman calendar.

This celebration of the end-of-harvest-beginning-of-winter honors St. Martin of Tours. A predominant image of St. Martin is of his cutting his cloak in half during snowstorm and sharing with a beggar he saw along the roadside. It is said that during that same night, he had a dream of Jesus who appeared in half a cloak and said Martin has been chosen.

St. Martin Dividing His Cloak by van Dyck c. 1618

He was a former Roman soldier who later became a humble monk and so deplored the idea of  becoming a bishop, tradition says, he hid in a pen of geese. It didn’t save him. The honking geese alerted churchmen to his whereabouts. He was brought forth and ordained Bishop of Tours. Thereafter, geese were identified with St. Martin. And goose traditionally was eaten during the Martinmas feasts. Unless you were poor, of course. Then you couldn’t afford it. If you were lucky, you got chicken. Or maybe pork. Or beef. Those two meats were handy, after all.

In the countryside, this time of bounty was celebrated with bonfires, dancing and, of course, drinking and eating. In Scotland, it was a quarter day. (England’s corresponding quarter day fell in September.)

St. Martin’s day, the first feast day in November, could be considered a ‘man’s day.’ But the second November feast/holiday later in the month was in honor of St. Catherine. It was considered a ‘ladies’ day.’ It gave rise to the term the Catherine Wheel. But that’s another story.

Thanks for stopping by to hear the story of St. Martin’s Day and Feast. It sounds a lot like Thanksgiving, doesn’t it? What’s your favorite Thanksgiving dish?


NOTE: Be sure to visit my fellow Medieval Monday Roses (The Wild Rose Press) Mary Morgan and Anastasia Abboud . They always have something interesting planned. You can find them here:



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  1. What an interesting post. Did Martinmas disappear by the time of the Regency? I suppose any bonfires were moved earlier to Guy Fawke’s Day. Thanks for sharing this!

  2. Thank you. My brother’s middle name is Martin, so the feast has special meaning. I had no idea, and am always thankful for learning more. Have a blessed Martinmas. My favorite Thanksgiving dish, by the way, is the dressing.

    1. Just tell your brother he can have an extra celebration a year 🙂 I love dressing too. But you know–none matching the dressing my mother always made–from scratch. 🙂 Happy Day to you as well !!

  3. So from this came the English Christmas goose? I always learn something reading your blog! My favorite Thanksgiving food is Coca-Cola brown sugar glazed ham with cloves. We’re not big turkey fans so this is our go to meat. Wishing you blessings on men’s and women’s days and on Thansgiving!

  4. So enjoyed this post, Barbara. And I must add the Scottish saint for this month: Saint Andrew! My favorite Thanksgiving dish is homemade pumpkin pie, and my husband’s stuffing. Even our kids beg him to make the stuffing. Happy Medieval Monday! 🙂

    1. Sounds like you husband has quite a touch with that dressing.I love a good dressing, too. But nothing I can produce meets my mom’s. My son does the pumpkin pies in our family. He’s got a touch for that! Happy Week, my friend!

    1. thanks Ivy. Yes, there’s always something new to learn about the ‘old’ holidays and traditions. So interesting. Thanks for being here. Happy Medieval Monday

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