Feasts of Saints

By Amanda Pizzolatto (Rated G)

As the year draws to an end and the holidays loom ever larger on the horizon, I would like to talk about some big holidays in Europe that take place in autumn before we leave the season behind for the year. Two of these holidays are about two saints, St. Michael and St. Martin, who are both associated with soldiers and horses.

St. Michael’s feast day (better known as Michaelmas) is mostly referenced in older English novels—like the works of Jane Austen—when the celebrations of the holiday were fairly big. Full feasts and balls were given in honor of the day. Foods such as goose and blackberries were the main focus of the meal, especially as blackberries would be in their ripe season. An old legend states that after the feast of St. Michael on September 29th, the devil ruins the blackberries. More like they got mildewy and old, but saying the devil ruins them is more fun. 

Being the holiday that takes place not long after the autumnal equinox, Michaelmas was also the date when many people would pay their bills. Every quarter the bills were due, so the closest holiday to the seasonal change was chosen for bill payment. Once that was done, the party commenced: eating, dancing, games, the typical party fare. These were all preceded by a Mass to commemorate the bravery of the angel who for the love of God stood up to a fallen angel greater than himself. 

St. Martin’s feast day on November 11th (better known as Martinmas) was, at first, a strictly French holiday, since St. Martin is one of the patrons of France. Then it spread to other parts of Europe and became celebrated in a way quite similar to the way Americans celebrate Thanksgiving, as a kind of harvest festival. The typical feasting and merrymaking was involved, along with Mass at the beginning of the day. While St. Martin has been associated with soldiers since he was one, he is best remembered for cutting his cloak in half and giving it to a poor man. Later, the poor man was seen in his bed and was revealed to be Christ in disguise, thanking him for the kindness. Martin left the military not long after that and became a priest, eventually becoming bishop of Tours and, later, patron of all of France. 

While many do not associate the first half of December with autumn, technically the first day of winter isn’t until December 21st. As such, these next two holidays are still considered autumnal holidays. 

The first is the feast of St. Nicholas, celebrated on December 6th. This is the Turkish saint behind the legend of Santa Claus, and it is claimed by people who celebrate his feast that he delivered presents on his feast day rather than on Christmas. He became such a large character in the Christmas sphere because of a legend that he helped three young women and their father in a time of need. When he grew up, he became a priest and then a bishop, and continued his generosity. After his passing, the legend spread to other parts of the world, where they got mixed up with traditional Father Christmas/Winter imagery—eventually becoming the Santa Claus we know today. 

The final feast day, which takes place on December 13th, belongs to St. Lucy, a fan favorite of the Northerners—specifically Sweden and Norway. Families celebrate her feast with one of the daughters (typically the eldest) dressing up in a white dress, a red sash, and a wreath crown with lit candles. She serves the family coffee and baked goods, such as saffron bread and ginger biscuits, to commemorate the girl martyr. According to legend, St. Lucy’s eyes were destroyed as part of her torture, but God gave her back the use of her sight, converting several people to the faith. But, eventually, her persecutors did martyr her, and many celebrate her loyalty to God by observing her feast day. 

These are just the four biggest feast days celebrated in the autumn, next to All Saints Day (also known as Hallowmas or Hallowtide). There are others—like St. Francis of Assissi and St. Therese of Lisieux in October—which hold some significance on the calendar, but aren’t quite as big of celebrations as the four listed. Most countries have their own saints’ feast days that not many others celebrate, if any. As such, you will find the big celebration of certain feasts only in one country or another, while others are celebrated around the world (due to immigration). This is the beauty of cultures sharing and growing together as we walk into the future.

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