All you need to know about Saint Martin's Day in Switzerland
Every year, people across Switzerland and the rest of the world celebrate Saint Martin’s Day on November 11. Here’s what you need to know about how the day is marked, what the history of the event is and what people in Swiss cities and cantons do to celebrate the occasion.
What is St Martin’s Day?
St Martin’s Day is a feast day designed to celebrate the life and work of Saint Martin or Tours. It is an important occasion across most of the Christian world and is often celebrated alongside the final harvest of the year.
Celebrations on Saint Martin's Day around the world include lantern processions, bonfires and eating foods like goose, red cabbage and dumplings. The luminous processions are to celebrate the life of Saint Martin and to symbolise the holy light that keeps the darkness at bay. These celebrations reflect the hope and faith that he inspired through his actions.
Who is Saint Martin?
According to Christian chroniclers, Martin of Tours was born in what is now modern-day Hungary in 316 or 336 depending on the source, born to a tribune in the Roman Army who was granted land in Italy upon retirement.
Martin and his conversion to Christianity
In what was unusual for the time, given Christianity was still a minority religion in the region, Martin began attending a Christian church when he turned 10, which then provided him with a basic education and understanding of the faith. When he was 15, as the son of a senior officer, he was required to join a heavy cavalry regiment and was stationed in modern-day France and then Italy.
However, just before a battle at Borbetomagus near Worms, Martin declared that he could not support the antichristian Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate and should instead devote his life to Christ. He was arrested for cowardice and jailed but was later released after the opposing side sued for peace.
Saint Martin as a soldier
The incident for which he is most remembered also occurred when Saint Martin was a soldier. He was approaching the city of Amiens, in Gaul (France), where he met a naked beggar. Martin cut his riding cloak in half and offered half of it to the beggar.
That night Martin had a vision of Jesus, clutching his cloak and telling the angels that Martin had given it to him. In some versions, he awoke to find his cloak whole again. The experience was enough to cement his belief in the Christian faith and he was baptised shortly after.
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Return to France and becoming a monk
After leaving the army, Martin decided to join a community in Caesarodunum (now Tours). Thanks to a disagreement over Christian beliefs, he was exiled and went to live on an island as a hermit. One story tells of how Martin fell ill from eating a hellebore plant on the island; on the verge of death, he prayed and was miraculously cured.
Once he returned to France, Martin established a hermitage, which attracted many Christian converts. The site of his hermitage developed into the Ligugè Abbey, the oldest known monastery in Europe. Martin continued to travel and preach throughout Gaul, and there are many stories of him performing miracles on his travels - on one occasion he resurrected three men from the dead.
Becoming a bishop
Against his wishes, Martin was consecrated as a bishop in Tours in 371. According to the story, he had been tricked into visiting the city, and once made a bishop, he tried to hide in a barn full of geese but their quacking gave him away - the reason why goose is a commonly eaten item on St. Martin’s Day.
A number of stories of miracles and conversions are tied to the story of Martin of Tours. Today, his life is used as a model for a good Christian: He was a soldier, who gave what he could to the poor, undertook military service, followed orders diligently and respected secular authority. He has become a paragon of justice, fairness and piety.
The legacy of Martin of Tours
Saint Martin’s story comes to an end in 397, when he passed away. While he died on November 8, his burial took place on November 11 - the date St. Martin’s Day is held to this day. He was made a saint in the late 5th century, with a large basilica built to house his sarcophagus being completed in 461. His resting place remains an important site of pilgrimage for many Christians.
Saint Martin is one of the most well-known Christian Saints, especially in his adoptive homeland of France. In fact, he earned the title of Patron Saint of France during the country’s Third Republic, which lasted between 1870 and 1940.
Where is Saint Martin's Day observed?
While Saint Martin’s Day has its roots in France, it has now spread across Europe. It not only celebrates the life of Saint Martin but also the end of the agrarian year and the end of harvest.
Saint Martin’s Day is often referred to as Martinmas, the day when Saint Martin is honoured with a mass. As the mass coincides with the end of harvest, traditionally fresh wine would have just been produced and farm animals slaughtered in accordance with winter preparations. This is why Saint Martin’s Day is celebrated with feasts and bonfires.
When is Saint Martin’s Day?
St Martin’s Day is held every year on November 11. In 2023, this means the celebrations will fall on a Saturday.
Is St Martin’s Day a holiday in Switzerland?
Sadly, while many in Switzerland do celebrate Saint Martin’s Day, it is not an official public holiday in any part of the country. This means that anyone looking for a day off work or school is sadly out of luck.
St Martin’s Day traditions in Switzerland
Much like in the rest of Europe, St Martin’s Day in Switzerland is an opportunity to celebrate the beginning of the winter season and the final harvest of the year. Here’s all you need to know about the celebrations in the alpine nation.
Räbechilbi and Räbeliechti
A tradition centuries old: many towns and cities in Switzerland hold special lit processions on the evening of St Martin’s Day. Called Räbechilbi, lanterns called Räbeliechti are carved from turnips which are then meant to light the way to the St Martin’s Day service at church.
Today, Räbechilbi have evolved to include elaborate parades or Räbechilbi-Umzug with specially designed lantern floats. The most famous parade is held every November 11 in Richterswil, Canton Zurich - 30 tons of turnips are used in the festival every year!
St Martin’s Fair in Vevey
The St Martin’s Fair in Vevey, Canton Vaud is steeped in tradition and history. The story goes that back when the area was controlled by the Italian Dukes of Savoy, officials marked the second Tuesday in November as “St Martin’s Fair” in 1471 - a day when locals would be able to sell their wares without paying taxes. The occasion soon developed into a vibrant festival, parade and party.
At the festival, people are able to indulge in a sort of neo-Christmas market, with different stands selling a cornucopia of different specialities. Be sure to try the famous and traditional boeuf à la broche (beef skewers) while you are there!
St Martin's Market in Murten
On the first Wednesday of November, the old town of the storied city of Murten is transformed from a medieval fortress to a charming little market. Be sure to try their unique onion cake, created solely for the occasion!
Feasts and markets of Ajoie
In the Ajoie of Canton Jura, people across the region take the weekend of Saint Martin’s Day as an opportunity to showcase their regional delicacies by hosting large food-related markets. A key highlight has to be the special Saint Martin's market in Porrentruy, with over 50 craft stalls filled to the brim with local delights.
Gansabhauet in Sursee
Before we start, we have to say that this living tradition is not for the faint of stomach:
Perhaps the most unusual St Martin's Day event, at least from our modern perspective, is the Gansabhauet in Sursee, Canton Lucerne. Classified as a living tradition by none other than the Swiss government, every November 11 groups from the city celebrate the day by stringing two dead geese up from the back of their necks and suspending them in front of the town hall.
Then, in front of 3.000 onlookers, blindfolded youngsters in traditional sun masks and cloaks try to decapitate the geese using a blunt sabre - it usually takes up to 20 hits for the process to be complete. At the same time, children participate in a number of traditional events like sack races and gurning competitions in what is known as Chäszänne - an allusion to the fact that the kids are rewarded for their efforts with some Swiss cheese.
Festivities are closed with their own Räbeliechtli-Umzug, before attendees dine on a mostly goose-based meal.
Whether you string up a goose, go to church or visit a turnip lantern procession, we hope that you have fun this Saint Martin's Day. Happy Martinstag!
Thumb image credit: Zvonimir Atletic / Shutterstock.com