The 11th of November is known as Remembrance Day (or Poppy Day) in many countries. In Malta and Gozo, the 11th of November is more popular as the feast of Saint Martin. This year that happens to be Friday. The feast of this Saint, a Roman soldier who famously tore up his cloak in two, in order to give an old poor man some respite from the cold weather is associated with a series of traditions.
- ‘Il-Borża ta’ San Martin’ or St. Martin’s Bag
On this day, children are given a simple and colourful cloth bag that is full of sweets, fruits, and nuts. As per the custom, the bag includes an apple, an orange, a tangerine, a pomegranate along with a collection of walnuts, hazelnuts, chestnuts, shelled almonds and figs. Sweets can also be included and usually one finds a glazed bun with a liquorice-sweet on top. Tradition has it that in days gone by, children used to hang this cloth bag onto their bed at bedtime and they would find all the goodies inside it in the morning. This tradition of a bounty on the feast of Saint Martin can be associated with the charity displayed by Saint Martin, but some say it originated from the times when the Church would be preparing for the fasting that was done during Advent and hence a good spread was a big treat before the 40 days of Advent.
- A Rhyme to go with the Feast
The lucky children who got the bag have the feast’s rhyme to chant.
“Ġewż, lewż, qastan, tin,
Kemm inħobbu ‘l San Martin!”
Translated into English it says something like: “Walnuts, almonds, chestnuts, figs; I truly love Saint Martin!” It is a very simple rhyme. However, it is easy to imagine that in days gone by, children would have truly awaited this feast as it meant that they would be given the bag with its treasures! In those days, the hazelnuts were not simply nuts to be cracked up, but were used as marbles for games. One game called ‘Kastelli’, ‘Castles’ in English, involved the children creating a cluster of castles, one for each child, in a circle. A castle was made by taking four hazelnuts and placing three hazelnuts for the base and one on top. The children would then take turns to hit the castles using a walnut. Whoever brought down a castle would pocket the hazelnuts.
- Summer Days in November
Ignore for a moment that we’re in November and the weather is still very clement but traditional, October and November weather meant ‘proper’ autumn weather with rain showers and colder spells. However in November, around the feast of Saint Martin, the Maltese islands would get a spell of fine weather that lasts a couple of days. These days with bright sunshine were evocative of summer and were referred to as ‘Is-Sajf ta’ San Martin’, literally meaning Saint Martins’ Summer. If the islands get the super sunny days this year, there’s nothing to stop some from a good swim!
- Devotion to Saint Martin
In Malta the feast of Saint Martin, celebrated on the Sunday closest to the day, gets more prominence. A fair and procession are held in the rural village of Baħrija. In Gozo, the feast of Saint Martin is less pronounced but one can find a lovely painting of the saint on one of the altars found at the Nadur Parish church. The painting by G. Vella carries the date of 1912, and depicts the young valiant soldier Martin, giving the cloak to the poor old man.
- Saint Martin’s Torte or Cake
There’s always a good reason to bake a great cake. Saint Martin’s torte or cake is a rich concoction with walnuts, hazelnuts, figs, almonds and cinnamon. To be in line with tradition, it’s best served with a cup of freshly ground coffee. The cake itself is a great precursor to the Christmas treats that follow in December. If you’re too busy to whip up the cake in your kitchen, you can always dash into your closest gourmet store in Gozo and grab nutty treats, boxes of sun-dried figs and other delightful indulgences.