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November 10: it’s time for Mārtiņi!

5 min read

Laid iekšā, saiminiece, man kājiņas nosalušas!
(Let me in—my feet are freezing!)

Thus begins another winter.
Mārtiņi or sometimes Mārtiņdiena is an ancient Latvian winter welcoming holiday, when the time of pieguļa, shepherding, came to an end.
According to a solar calendar, Mārtiņdiena marks the midpoint between the autumnal equinox (Miķeļi) and winter solstice (Ziemassvētki), and is celebrated on this day, 10th of November.
Mārtiņi ended Veļu laiks (Time of the Dead, Late autumn – October and November – when the leaves have fallen, the field work is done, the weather is often foggy, and the wolves begin to howl in autumn), and started Ledus laiks (Time of Ice), when the swamp became passable and raids of armed men sitting on horses were expected.
It is the end of the harvest season.
The field work has come to an end by now, and the end of threshing is celebrated. Horses and cattle are brought in to spend the winter in the barns, and this It is a time for gathering and preparing food and getting ready for winter, as well as being thankful for a good harvest.

In Finland day is known as Martinpäivä and in Estonia as Mardipäev.
“Mārtiņi” was named after the Catholic St.Martin of Tours or Martin Luther, the founder of Lutheranism.
Not by chance, Day of St.Martin is celebrated all over Europe, but the holiday itself is way older and the name of it is based on the French word morti and Latin mori meaning death.
The namesake of the festival, Mārtiņš, is a lesser deity or mythical character associated with the waning of the sun, as well as with war. With the farm work done and the ground and rivers frozen, in years gone by fall was usually the time that raids and wars began.
Mārtiņš was a dual god who, in the springtime, would turn into god Usinš (celebrated at the opposite end of the year on May 10) and they have several similarities: they both care for horses, both are associated with sacrifices of roosters, and they symbolize the waning (Mārtiņš) and waxing (Ūsiņš) of the sun.

The centrepiece of the Mārtiņi celebration is the costumes and masks, the “mummers.”
In the evening people dress up so that no one can recognize them. They then go from house to house, where they are greeted with cheers, songs, food and drink.
The mummers, usually called budēļi, čigāni or ķekatas, demand food and drink. The better the fare offered, the better the hosts’ harvest will be next year. They dance around the whole farmyard, bringing blessings and fertility to the animals, buildings, fields and gardens. Then they goes on to the next farmstead, where the whole scene is repeated.
Sounds kind of like Halloween, right?
Of course it does, because many cultures have similar traditions in the fall. Latvians traditionally continued these masked visits all winter long until the Meteņi celebration in early February.
In any case the budēļi are said to bring good fortune. They tend to disguise themselves as familiar objects, people and animals, and common Latvian costumes include the tall lady, the short man, a gypsy, a bear-tamer and bear, a goat, a wolf, a heron, a rabbit, a tree or even a mushroom.
The main thing is that no one recognizes you!

Traditionally, During the night of Mārtiņi young ladies threw their skirts to the floor before going to bed and in the dream, their future spouse would pick it up.
Because Mārtiņi occurs after the harvest, it is a wealthy festival with lots of good food, but also a slaughter time, so there is usually a variety of meats at the festival meal. Pork, pīrāgi, root vegetables, cabbage, bread, apples, cranberries, grey peas, beer and sweetbreads are just some example.
But the best known delicacy is rooster.
A protection ritual to ensure the well-being of the horses (“Mārtiņam gaili kāvu deviņiem cekuliem; Tas baroja, tas sukāja manus bērus kumeliņus”) was also done, where, not by chance a rooster, was sacrificed.
On the eve of Mārtiņi, the horse´s mouth was touched with the rooster, then it was lifted towards the sun & blood of the rooster was dropped to the horse oats.
Latvians worshipped the sun goddess Saule so lifting the rooster towards the sun was a sacrificial gift for the goddess.
On the next day the left-back food of the horse was painted with blood, while the dead rooster was smudged in the stable, put inside the bread and carried around the building to drive away from the evil spirit.

Of course, every Latvian region and family develops its own traditions, even outside of Latvia.
There was, for example, also “martiparades” going on around Mārtiņi. Big martis were grown-ups and small martis were children, people who painted their faces and dressed up as spirits of the dead.
These parades were common in other countries as well like some parts of Austria, Germany, Finland, the Netherlands, Sweden and Estonia.
But, depending your region, or the story your heard, since Middle Ages, this holiday is associated with the horse cult and knight traditions.

Images from web – Google Research