Originally written on November 11, 2020. Updated 2023
The 11th of November is of course Armistice Day or Remembrance Day, an annual commemoration of the day the First World War came to an end, at 11 AM on the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918.
However before the horrors of the Great War, the 11th of November had long been a special date in European calendars. For now what we now think of as Armistice Day falls upon the date of an almost forgotten feast, St. Martin’s Day or Martinmas.
If you’re fortunate, you may experience an “Indian Summer” on November but, according to the traditional definition, it can only occur on these days, between November 11 and 20!
Actually, in the fall, almost any warm day could be referred to as an “Indian summer.”
But what is, and where did the term come from?
Traditionally, it referred to something more specific, and there are some criteria for a true Indian summer: as well as being warm, the atmosphere is hazy, there is no wind, the barometer is standing high, and the nights are clear and chilly.
A moving, cool, shallow polar air mass is converting into a deep, warm, stagnant anticyclone (high pressure) system, which has the effect of causing the haze and large swing in temperature between day and night.
Traditionally the warm days must follow a spell of cold weather or a good hard frost, but also first snowfall.
The conditions described above also must occur between St. Martin’s Day, on November 11, and November 20.
And why is it called “Indian Summer”?
There are many theories, but none is confirmed.
Some say the term comes from the Algonquian people located in what is now the northeastern United States, who believed that the condition was caused by a warm wind sent from the court of their southwestern god, Cautantowwit, literally “great spirit”.
Similarly, another story states that Native Americans would routinely use this brief period of warm fall weather to gather a final round of supplies before winter’s hold set in.
Yet another involves European settlers in New England who, each year, would welcome the arrival of cold, wintry weather in late October when they could leave their stockades unarmed. But then came a time when it would suddenly turn warm again, and the Native Americans would decide to have one more go at the settlers, who called it “Indian summer”.
In parts of Europe, the same phenomenon is known as an “Old Wives’ Summer” or “St. Martin’s Summer”.
Historically Saint Martin’s Day, also called the Funeral of Saint Martin, Martinstag or Martinmas, is the Funeral day of Saint Martin of Tours, Martin le Miséricordieux, and is celebrated on 11 November each year.
Born on the 8th of November around 315 AD, Martin of Tours was a Roman soldier who converted to Christianity. When he refused to fight, he was imprisoned for a time, and in the end left the Roman legions to preach across Europe and establish a hermitage. Martin was so devout that it was thought he would be an excellent bishop. However, he was less than keen on the idea – as a man of sincere faith, he loved the contemplative life. Hence he had to be tricked into coming to the city of Tours, France, with the claim a sick friend needed his ministrations, to be invested as a bishop. When he discovered the deception, Martin tried to dodge this promotion into the church hierarchy by hiding in a barn full of geese. But when the Church authorities came to take Martin to the cathedral to be made a bishop, the geese honked so loudly that Martin was quickly discovered.
In any case, he did indeed make a very good bishop, although it is said he founded a monastery at Marmoutier in order to have somewhere to withdraw to and continue his worship in the humble and quiet contemplative manner he prefered.
After his death on the 8th November 387 AD, he was venerated for his good works, and legends grew up around him, with the usual crop of miracles such as having visions of Christ, healing the sick and raising the Devil being attributed to him.
The most notable of his saintly acts was when he had cut his cloak in half to share with a beggar during a snowstorm, to save him from the cold.
That same night Martin had a dream in which it was revealed that the beggar had been Christ himself and thus began his life of piety and devotion.
Saint Martin died on 8 November 397, and was buried three days later. Hence he became St. Martin and his feast day was set as the 11th of November, a couple of days after his death date.
From the late 4th century into the Middle Ages, St. Martin’s Day was widely celebrated across Europe, with great feasts being held on Martinmas Eve (10th of November) and the traditional dish was roast goose, which according to legend was a commemoration of the noisy birds that foiled Martin’s attempt to dodge bishophood.
This holiday feast-day originated in France, then spread to the Netherlands, the British Isles, Germany, Scandinavia, and Eastern Europe.
Martinmas is the day when Martin is honoured in the Mass, and Its feast celebrates the end of the agrarian year, the main annual harvest. Saint Martin was also known as friend of the children and patron of the poor. Moreover, although no mention of any connection between Martin and viticulture is made, the Saint is widely credited in France with helping to spread wine-making throughout the region of Tours (Touraine) and facilitating vine planting. The old Greek folklore that Aristaeus discovered the advantage of pruning vines after watching a goat foliage has been appropriated to Martin.
In the agricultural calendar formerly used widely in Europe, the day marked natural winter’s start, and in the economic calendar, the end of autumn.
Much brewed beer and wine first becomes ready at this time, which sees the end of winter preparations, including the butchering of animals.
The feast was seen as the preferred time for the butchering of “Martinmas beef” from prime, fattened cattle, geese, other livestock as well as the ending of the toil of autumn wheat seeding.
An old English saying is “His Martinmas will come as it does to every hog,” and the word being a euphemism for slaughte. Because of this, the feast is much like the American Thanksgiving: a celebration of the earth’s bounty to humans.
In some countries traditionally bonfires are built and children carry lanterns in the streets after dark, singing songs for which they are rewarded with candy.
St. Martin’s Day was a time for merrymaking and feasting for good reason.
For on the 12th of November began what the medieval church called Quadragesima Sancti Martini – the Forty Days of St. Martin – a time of fasting and spiritual preparations for Christmas.
So, of course, folks wanted to ensure they had a good feast and made merry before this period of devotion and self denial.
These forty days of fasting and contemplation that followed St. Martin’s Day are also the origin of what we now call Advent.
In any case, an “Indian Summer” or warm period in autumn is called “Altweibersommer” (literally old women’s summer) in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Lithuania, as well as in Hungary (vénasszonyok nyara), Estonia (vananaistesuvi), and also in a number of Slavic-language countries, including Czech Republic, Ukraine, Poland, Slovakia, Russia and Slovenia (Czech: babí léto, Ukrainian: бабине літо, Polish: babie lato, Slovak: babie leto, Russian: бабье летоjp).
In Bulgaria it is known as “gypsy summer” (Циганско лято) or “poor man’s summer”, and in Gaelic Ireland, the phenomenon is called “fómhar beag na ngéanna” (little autumn of the geese).
In other countries it is associated with autumnal name days or saint days such as Teresa of Ávila (Portugal, Spain and France), St. Martin’s Summer (Spain, France, Italy, Portugal and Malta), St. Michael’s summer (“Miholjsko leto”, Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina), St. Demetrius (Greece and Cyprus), Bridget of Sweden in Sweden, and Saint Michael the Archangel in Wales.
In Turkey it is called pastırma yazı, meaning pastrami summer, since the month of November was considered to be the best time to make pastırma (the meat that, though slightly different, pastrami originated from, a highly seasoned, air-dried cured beef, that is part of the local cuisine but popular also in Armenia, Egypt, Greece, Iraq and North Macedonia).
But what about “Grandmother’s summer” or “old women’s summer”, used in several countries?
There are several theories about it, and probably the term comes from the meaning “second youth in women”.
The “second youth” is contemptuously viewed as short-lived and ill-timed but, If this was the origin of the name, it would also have been seen as something bad and out of place.
But that is not the case, as in this case it is seen as something good, as a precious gift.
And the slavic name “Babje leto”, literally Grandmother’s summer tells us clearly who the people believed this gift of the good weather was from: Baba, the great goddess.
In Slavic tradition apart from being mother Earth, Baba also controlled the waters, the cold and ruled the winter, and she was the complementing opposite to the Father Sky, who controlled the sun, the heat and ruled the summer.
So it is quite possible that the expression was originally Slavic in origin. It then spread into the countries, which once had large Slavic population, and were strongly influenced by its culture, such as Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Lithuania, Hungary, Finland.
Another proposed reason why the late summer is called Grandmother’s summer is that this is the time of the year when young males of a certain type of spiders, Linyphiidae, produce long strands of spiderweb on which they then fly through the air.
In English this flying spider web is known as “gossamer”, a word first recorded around 1300 AD, meaning literally “filmy substance (actually spider threads) found in fields of stubble in late fall”.
It is not known where does this word come from, but one theory says that it comes from gos “goose” + sumer “summer” and that it probably comes from an original sense of “late fall, or Indian summer” because geese are in season then. However it is much more likely that the word comes from go + summer = going away, or end of summer.
The word weib in “Altweibersommer” is an archaic German word meaning woman, wife. This word is very close to an old Germanic root word “web” meaning net, something woven, like spider net which is related to an old Germanic root verb “weben” meaning to weave.
So we can see here clear link between web, made of thread, wife, or woman, and Indian Summer itself.
Grandmother’s summer is in Germany also called “Madchensommer” meaning young girl summer (maiden’s summer, virgin’s summer).
So no wonder that that in German this type of flying spider tread was once called Marien garn, or Marien faden, and there is also a folk belief that these threads are remnants of the cloth used to wrap the body of the Virgin Mary, and which unraveled into the threads and dropped from the sky during her ascension.
Not by chance, in most Slavic languages these strands of spiderweb are called “bapske vlasi” or “babina kosa”, meaning baba’s hair, grandmother’s hair, or witch’s hair. Folk belief is that this is the time when new witches are inaugurated and that the flying strands of spiderweb are their hair.
People also believed that a girl will soon get married if this flying spiderweb got entangled into her hair….
Images from web – Google Research