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Unraveling the mysteries of St. Martin's Day

  • 2007-11-07
  • By Talis Saule Archdeacon

UPSIDE-DOWN SONG: Many of the traditions surrounding Martin's Day are based on the idea of "upside-down magic," in which invoking one thing will bring its opposite. Insulting each other in song in order to become closer friends is one example of this practice.

RIGA - Anyone who spends a bit of time in the Baltics will quickly hear about the famous midsummer festival, St. John's Day. Something many non-natives miss out on, however, is the plethora of similar but smaller holidays that are celebrated in the region.
St. Martin's Day, while celebrated to some extent throughout most of Western Europe, is an especially important day here. It is a day when the lines between the spirit world and the world of the living begin to blur.

"In Latvian tradition we don't draw a sharp line between us who are alive and our relatives who have passed away. This is a time of year when they are particularly close," said Valda Vitolina, a leading expert on Latvian folklore.
The holiday actually falls on November 11, but it is most often celebrated the night before. The celebrations themselves are a conglomeration of ancient pagan traditions surrounding the end of the harvest period and more modern Christian traditions brought by the Germans in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Many of the customs of the holiday are similar to easily recognizable Halloween traditions. People dress in masks styled after animals and go door to door singing, dancing and begging for small gifts (St. Martin is considered the patron saint of beggars).

Zoja Klujeva, a prominent expert in Latvian mythology, said that the main difference between Halloween and the Baltic traditions lies in the symbolism behind them.
"The difference between this day and Halloween is that our masks are never meant to be scary. They are to drive away bad spirits," Klujeva said.
There are three different masks which are the most popular for people to wear on the day, each one associated with a different tradition. One of the most common, Klujeva said, is the crane mask 's the most important part of which is a giant beak that springs from the wearer's forehead. On Martin's Day eve, the person with the crane mask walks through the house pinching revelers with its beak, a process which is meant to cleanse the person and drive away bad spirits.

Another popular costume is the bear mask. The person wearing the bear mask walks to each corner of the house and bellows out a mighty roar meant to bring good luck to the household.
The third most popular mask is the death mask, or the "living dead man" costume. Revelers who dance with the person in the death mask have their sicknesses and weaknesses purged and are brought good health.
Klujeva said that the idea of dancing with death to bring life is an example of the "atgriezinska magika," roughly translated as "upside-down magic," which is common to the holiday. Upside-down magic involves invoking what would seem to be the opposite of your true desires in order to see those desires fulfilled.
This sort of upside-down magic is exemplified in the singing battles that are common to many Latvian folk holidays. In these small song wars, the idea is to sing 's often in harsh terms but always in the traditional format 's about all the faults of another person at the celebration in order to become better friends with that person.

"The most important thing about these songs is that afterward you go and talk to the person to become friends with them. It is understood that these things were only a part of the song and that you should not be upset about what is said," Vitolina said. She explained that the songs have a sort of cathartic effect by allowing a person to say all of the negative things they feel about a person without causing strife.
Many of the traditions surrounding the day deal with the thin line between the worlds of the living and the dead. On this day, the people wearing the special masks are said to be partway in the spirit world, and spirits are able to communicate with people.

In olden days, people would leave a bowl of food outside for the spirits of deceased family members. "If when the family checks in the morning and the food has been eaten (probably by some dog or cat), then it is a good sign that the spirits are still there, that they are still with us," Klujeva said.
The day not only has traditions to protect people during the harsh upcoming winter months, but also to protect valuable livestock. On Martin's Day the men of a household traditionally paint the door to the stables with the blood of a black rooster. Vitolina said that as black roosters are a rare phenomenon, many people would dye a rooster black with ash for the ceremony.
The women of the household, meanwhile, would paint the doors of the barn holding cows and other livestock with the blood of a hen.

While less important in the traditional Baltic Martin's Day festivities, perhaps the one thing most commonly associated with the holiday today is the great feast, where revelers would eat specially prepared chicken or duck. The Baltic people originally always ate chicken, but after German influences took hold, goose became the more common dish 's although this practice was first confined only to wealthy Balts who could afford a goose.
Much of the folklore surrounding Martin's Day festivities has been slowly forgotten over time and influenced by similar Western European traditions, though some of the elements of today's customs hark back to the days when pagan traditions dominated the Baltic states.

"The traditions themselves often outlive the meaning behind them, and [that is what happened] with some things on Martin's Day," Klujeva said.
While most people prefer to celebrate Martin's Day with their friends and families, there are a few public festivities scheduled. The most notable public celebration in Latvia this year will be held at the open-air museum in Riga, where anyone interested will be able to see many aspects of the magical day come to life in a traditional setting.