When I’m not trying to force Halloween on people who are not interested, I like to embrace local traditions and holidays. So this year, I traded in Thanksgiving for the Feast of St. Martin, which is celebrated widely all around Europe. The Medieval holiday is observed annually on November 11. Here is why.
Who was St. Martin?
St. Martin, or Martin of Tours, was a Roman soldier from present-day Hungary. He fought in the army, though reports vary about how long he served. He is known for a now-legendary encounter with a beggar. Having nothing to give the beggar, he cut his own coat into two and gave him half. Later, Jesus Christ came to him in a vision wearing the half of the coat that he had given the beggar. This was the event that made Martin devote the rest of his life to God.
He found military life incompatible with his beliefs, so he became a monk. He lived a modest and quiet life in France, where he was later named Bishop of Tours. He is the patron saint of beggars, wine makers, geese, and soldiers. This is fitting, as Veteran’s Day also falls on November 11.
Since early to mid-November is historically the time when snow starts falling in the Czech Republic, the Czechs have a saying, “Martin přijíždí na bílém koni,” which translates to “Martin is coming on a white horse.” I’m not particularly religious but this is a marginally better reason for a feast than Native American genocide rebranded as a day of gratitude.
What’s on the menu?
St. Martin’s Day coincides with the harvest and, much like American Thanksgiving, is celebrated with a big dinner to enjoy the food and wine of the season. Geese are traditionally the centerpiece of the Feast of St. Martin, because according to legend, the ever-modest Martin hid inside a goose pen to avoid being appointed bishop, but the geese betrayed him and he was discovered.
The day also coincides with the debut of young wines from the most recent harvest in wine-making areas. In many places in Europe, St. Martin’s Day has become primarily a celebration of new wine. The young wines, which are meant to be enjoyed by spring, are fruity, fresh, and dry. In the Czech Republic, svatomartinské wine (St. Martin’s wine) is served starting at 11 am on November 11 in restaurants, wine shops, and vineyards around the country.
Aside from the traditional roast goose, Czechs also typically serve dumplings, pasta, lokše, which are potato pancakes, and white and red cabbage. This is followed up by cakes or sweet versions of lokše. Traditionally, St. Martin’s Feast was followed up by a period of fasting, so this is a holiday to gorge yourself with no calorie guilt. And after spending 5 hours trying to finish that giant plate of food, I can understand why a fast would be appropriate.
Where to celebrate in Prague?
One of the most popular places to enjoy young wine on St. Martin’s day is St. Claire’s Vineyard, which is part of the Troja Botanical Gardens. You can sample the season’s new wines starting at 11 am right from the source. Locals also celebrate on the river at Rašínovo nábřeží, the right bank of the Vltava River north of Vyšehrad castle. In addition to more than two dozen Czech wine varieties, the outdoor celebration includes food for the occasion and live traditional Czech music. A similar event is held at Jiřího z Poděbrad Square as part of the week long Tastes of Autumn Festival. If you’re not interested in trying to eat an entire goose, they also sell jerked shredded goose and goose burgers.
If you’re feeling particularly fancy, you can enjoy a 3-hour St. Martin’s Day cruise on the river, which features food, wine, and music. Admission is limited so reserving early is crucial.
The outdoor events do get packed and the lines for food and wine get pretty long. So if you want to avoid the wait the harsh November winds, you can find roast goose and St. Martin’s wine at most restaurants in the city, even a day before and after St. Martin’s Day. Reservations are recommended.
The afternoon of St. Martin’s Day, there is also a lantern parade including a short mass at the Rotunda of St. Martin on the grounds of Vyšehrad. The family event brings families and children out with paper lanterns in a procession behind St. Martin on a white horse.
So did St. Martin bring snow to Prague? Not yet, but we have officially breached freezing temperatures for the first time this year. I’ll be calmly waiting for the first snow with some svatomartinské wine to keep me warm.