The story of St. Martin’s Day, Venice ancient traditional celebration

9 November 2021

Venice, November 9th, 2021 – The smell of wine and roasted chestnuts, wooden spoon beating on aluminium cover pots or jars, used as drums. In Venice, pastry and bakery window shops show colourful sweets for St. Martin’s Day: big or little shortbread biscuits with the shape of the saint on a horse, and with a sword in his hand. Decorated with icing, candy, chocolate money and the typical silver balls called “broken teeth”. Kids with a paper crown on their head, walk through venetian calli singing out loud St. Martin’s song. This is how St. Martin’s Day is celebrated in Venice: busy calli full of kids who, after having sung the song, ask for a sweet or a penny to shop owners.

In Venice a church is dedicated to Saint Martin of Tours, in Castello, a few steps from the Arsenale. The year in which the church was established is still unknown, although many believed that it dates back to the VIII century and might have been projected and built by Longobard colonies or by families from Ferrara. According to the tradition instead, it should date back to the VI or VII century. For sure we know that the devotion to the patron Saint is rooted within the church, in which the remains of the converted knight, a tunic, a piece of finger and a shin bone, are guarded. The latter was given to the Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista in exchange for a huge amount of money needed to restore the church. The bone was exchanged on one condition only: every 11th of November the shin bone had to be brought back by means of a religious parade from the Scuola di San Giovanni to the Church of St. Martin. The saint can also be seen outside the church: at the top of the gable there are two sculptures of St. Martin as bishop and St. Martin as Pope, while on the right side of the church there is a sculpted low relief dating back to the XV century representing St. Martin giving his cloak to a poor man.

St. Martin’s celebrations are connected to an ancient legend in which the main character was a knight, Martin of Tours, who decided to convert to Christianity. On a rainy and cold day of November, Martin saw, along his way, a poor man, dressed in rags and trembling in the cold. Martin did not have any money and so he did not know how to help him. So, he decided to cut a piece of his cloak and give it to the beggar. After this charitable action, the sky went clear, the rain stopped and the sun began to shine, warming the air as if it was summertime – from here the name “St. Martin’s summer”, which characterize sunny warm November days. That same night, Martin had a dream: he saw Jesus on the beggar’s face. Once he woke up, he found his cloak without the cut. Martin died on November 8th 397, and his funeral was celebrated on November 11th, a day which marks the halfway of an internal path that every Christian does until Christmas, while in the regional Italian tradition it is a popular celebration.

So, this is how in the city of Venice, and from some years now also the venetian province, every year St. Martin is celebrated and, according to the celebrations, a sweet that was invented by venetian bakers, is prepared. In the past the traditional shape of the biscuit was little, made with a crunchy shortbread, crunchier than the one we are used to eat nowadays, topped with chocolate. Today the sweet is much crumbly and enriched with several decorations: from the icing to little colourful chocolate sweets.

In many little villages of the municipality of Venice, St. Martin’s is celebrated by recalling the “farmer’s new year”. People eat chestnuts and drink wine along the streets, in a time of the year that marks the end of the harvest and so a deserved rest from working the land. In the farming world, St. Martin’s Day celebrations are connected to the wine tradition, since in this period the new wine is taken from the barrels. From here the Italian saying “A San Martino ogni mosto diventa vino” (on St. Martin’s Day, grape must is turned into wine”).