Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you
can understand.
 

Excerpt from The Stolen Child by William Butler Yeats [1865-1939]

Once upon a time, the world used a different calendar called the Julian calendar (named after Julius Caesar). During this time, Samhain aka Halloween occurred on November 11 instead of October 31. Just like today, Samhain was a time when the veil between the living and the dead was so thin that spirits could roam the world. During the time of the Julian calendar, this was still a pagan holiday. And during this holiday, in Ancient Ireland, all the living people were focused on one thing–keeping the Sidhe in the Otherworld.

The Sidhe (pronounced Shee) are Irish Fairies, descended from the Tuatha Dé Danaan, who tended to be contrary and difficult to deal with. And they could also be dangerous, especially when they were kidnapping children and taking them to the Otherworld. The Sidhe were particularly active during this time of year, so on November 11 people would sacrifice birds and scatter the blood around their properties to protect themselves and their children from the Sidhe. Then they’d offer the dead bird to the Sidhe, keeping behind one claw in case a child was taken during the year. Apparently, you might be able to trade that claw to get your child back.

Before the Dark Ages began (around 500 AD), the Roman Empire ruled everyone and random pagan customs still existed in the darker corners of the world, especially in Ancient Ireland and Scotland which the Romans never truly conquered. Still, Christianity was growing in popularity and slowly encroaching on the older gods and customs. One of the best examples of this is in Ancient Ireland. Samhain, and its connection to the Otherworld of the Sidhe, was a powerful force during the 1st – 4th centuries until a Roman soldier and Christian convert changed… everything.

What little information historians have about Martin of Tours (St. Martin) comes from a Roman historian named Sulpicius Severus. Apparently, Martin was born (between 316 AD and 336 AD) into a pagan family of Danubian (Belgian) nobles, and he joined the Roman cavalry when he was just 15 years old. Although this was around the time Christianity was now considered legal to practice in the empire, Martin was named after the Roman god Mars, the god of war. Martin was expected to build his life in the Roman army as an officer who would one day command a legion. (Mars also had a role to play in protecting Hades and its cthulhu wealth which becomes later on)

So Martin, the Roman cavalryman, was doing his work and also becoming a catechumen (someone who was being instructed in the Christian faith). By the time he was 18, he’d already served in Gaul, Milan, and Treves. He’d also been promoted to serve in the Roman emperor’s guard. Then, one freezing cold day, he met a naked beggar in Amiens. Martin removed his heavy cloak and cut it in half with his sword. He gave one half of the cloak to the beggar and kept the other half for himself. That night, Martin had a vision of Christ. The vision said, “Martin, a mere catechumen has clothed me.”

By the age of 20, Martin told his superior officers and his family that he was now a conscientious objector (Martin is considered the first conscientious objector in recorded history) and he no longer wanted to serve in the Roman army. The other officers accused him of cowardice and threatened him with prison. So Martin said he’d go into battle unarmed. If he survived, they’d release him from service. The officers agreed since they really didn’t want to send him to prison (he was from a very powerful family), and after the battle was canceled due to an unexpected truce, they released him from service.

Now that Martin was no longer a soldier, he moved to Tours, France where he studied theology under Hilary of Poitiers. Then Martin moved to Italy where he began converting people to the Christian faith. Sulpicius Severus tells all sorts of stories about Martin’s time in Italy, including converting a vicious highwayman and confronting the devil. Around this time, Martin had a vision telling him to return to his mother in Pannonia. He did and led his mother to conversion. With his growing fame for miracles, spiritual battles, and conversions, he then countered the Arian heresy which denied the divinity of Christ. The Arian leaders drove Martin away from Italy and forced him into exile. Martin ended up back in Tours where, in 361, he established the Liguge Abbey monastery. Martin was an extraordinary evangelist and eventually opened another monastery and became a Bishop. He became even more famous for becoming a monk and helping the poor, casting out demons, and fighting heresies. Martin died on 8 November 397, and was buried three days later, on November 11. November 11 became St. Martin’s feast day, what we now call Martinmas. Since by this time St. Martin had performed so many miracles, most of the world mourned his death.

Around this time, a man named Maewyn Succat was born to a wealthy family in Britain. This family, because of their standing in the community, tried to walk a fine line between paganism and Christianity to keep the peace. Maewyn’s mother, Concessa, was also a direct relative of St. Martin of Tours. While I won’t go into Maewyn’s entire life story, he ends up becoming St. Patrick of Ireland.

When St. Patrick was working in Ireland, he was faced with a wild country split in two. Many people were converting to Christianity, to take power away from the Druid priests, while many others still worshipped the old gods. The one thing both sides had in common was that they believed in the Green Folk, aka the Sidhe (Fairies). As St. Patrick preached, he began to celebrate the saints that had gone before him, including his relative St. Martin of Tours. St. Patrick even offered Ireland into St. Martin’s spiritual protection. Since Martinmas occurred on the same day as Samhain, over the years the celebrations of both the old and new holidays merged. People still killed a bird, but they ate it in Thanksgiving instead of leaving it in the woods for the Sidhe. (Cooking a bird for Thanksgiving… sound familiar?) People carried lanterns cut out of gourds and pumpkins and walked through their towns to spread the light of Christ as well as to keep the spirits (and fairies) in the Otherworld. Towns held huge bonfires, and beggars came out on the night of November 10 to go A’souling… asking for “soul cakes” to keep them fed during the winter (an early form of trick or treating). People lit bonfires and prayed for their deceased relatives, often dressing in costume to confuse those spirits who might try to cross through the veil to the land of the living.

In 1582, when Pope Gregory XIII, developed the Gregorian calendar to rectify the mathematical mistakes in the Julian calendar (The Julian system miscalculated the length of the solar year by 11 minutes, causing the calendar to fall out of sync with the seasons), Halloween, was moved back to October 31, along with all of the traditions. Yet, the world was so Christianized by then, many people kept up the traditions of Martinmas. Up until the beginning of WWII, towns all over Britain and Ireland still had lantern walks (often with hot cider and bonfires along the way) on November 11. It was also considered a national holiday where most people had the day off of work.

But there was (and some say there still is) a tradition that never moved to Halloween and stayed with Martinmas — a tradition that talks about why you should protect your children from the Sidhe. According to Norman Scarfe, who published the book “Suffolk in the Middle Ages” in 1986, people still worried about the fairies who take children. In a scary passage, Scarfe retells the story of a British farmer and his interaction with the Sidhe.

at harvest time, when the harvesters were busy in the fields gathering the crops, two children a boy and a girl, emerged from these ditches. Their entire bodies were green and they were wearing clothes of unusual colour and unknown material. As they wandered bemused over the countryside, they were seized by the reapers and led to the village”. [They refuse all food until they are given freshly shelled beans which they eat until they learn to eat bread and speak English]. “Once they had the use of our language, they were asked who they were and where they came from. They said to have replied “we are people from St Martin’s land; he is accorded special reverence in the country of our birth” (Scarfe, 1986).

This interview talks about a direct link to the Otherworld (land of the Sidhe) and the twilight world (land of the living), and it mentions “St. Martin’s Land”. Apparently St. Patrick offered Ireland and Britain, including the vididi populous (Green folk) into the protection of St. Martin because he was named after the Roman god Mars. By renaming the Otherworld as “St. Martin’s Land”, St. Patrick was making a point that St. Martin would be taking the power to protect the Otherworld (and its cthulhu wealth) away from the Roman god Mars, Martin’s own namesake. By renaming the Otherworld as “St. Martin’s Land”, St. Patrick was also trying to break the people’s fear that the Sidhe would roam the earth during this time of year and steal children. Although I’m not sure St. Patrick’s plan worked because there are records that the Irish people feared the Sidhe up until WWII. From the Middle Ages up until the Mid-Twentieth Century, many people still chose to celebrate Martinmas. The people hoped that since St. Martin held a form of “rulership” over the “Land of the Sidhe“, he had the power to keep the Sidhe away. So it was for the benefit of the children that towns kept up their Martinmas traditions.

During WWII, many traditions faded way as the people were faced with the terrible sufferings the war brought to everyone’s home. But recently, there’s been in interest in reviving some of these older traditions including Lantern Walks, especially in Germany, Belgium, France, and Scotland. I’m not sure why this day is becoming popular again, but even during the pandemic people began embracing older traditions and stories. Maybe it’s just for fun, or maybe it’s a way for people to channel their fear of the world (because there’s a lot going on right now!). Or maybe going on a Lantern Walk, on a dark Autumn night, is just a way for the world to commemorate a saint whose story reminds us of our shared humanity, including all our fears, hopes, and joys.

Whether you celebrate Martinmas or not, I hope you have a great weekend. And, if you’re so inclined, light a lantern and place it outside your home in honor of a man who believed that we no longer need to fear the dark.


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