Category Archives: Veterans Day

Roots and Wine and Poppies: Hollantide

Confession: I was once a November curmudgeon. It was not all that long ago, either. I loved September, October, and December, but November? November to me was best described by another guy who was not fond of November, Thomas Hood, whose fame comes from a poem titled “No!”

No sun––no moon!
No morn––no noon––
No dawn––
No sky––no earthly view––
No distance looking blue––
No road––no street––no “t’other side the way”––
No end to any Row––
No indications where the Crescents go––

Etcetera etcetera until the end: No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees, / No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds, / November!

But it is good to sit back every now and again, reassess, and to reconsider our opinions. I’ve done that with many things over the years, like rhubarb, and I am still on the fence about rhubarb, to be honest. But I’ve also reconsidered my opinion about November in recent years and discovered that I’ve come to really love November. Haden, the Convivio Shop Cat, loves November, too, and that is part of my shift in perspective. In the print shop and at the front door in November, the sun streams in through the glass windows like nobody’s business, and she basks in the rays until she gets drunk on the stuff. That alone brings me so much happiness. And, as I’ve grown older and perhaps wiser, I’ve come to realize that some of my favorite days of the year are actually part of celebrations that span several days. I, like many of you, have always loved Halloween and its accompanying apparent magic. It took a lot of years for me to understand that Halloween ushered in All Saints Day and All Souls Day, which includes the beautiful ceremony of Dia de Muertos. And it was many years more before I understood that these days of the year when we especially remember our beloved dead continue well into November. This is Hollantide––a corruption of Hallowtide: the time of the sacred, the time of the holy. And tomorrow, the Eleventh of November, brings Martinmas, their conclusion, ending this annual time of remembrance.

St. Martin of Tours, who we celebrate on Martinmas, was a veteran (and we’ll talk of veterans later, for it is also Veterans Day) of the Roman army in the fourth century who opted to take up Christian pacifism and is known best for helping a poor, drunken man on a cold winter’s day by tearing his own cloak in two so that the poor fellow could have something to keep him warm. St. Martin has since become a patron saint of tailors (and, for better or worse, of vineyard keepers and winemakers and drunkards).

What makes Martinmas the bookend to Halloween? The connection may have something to do with the Celtic New Year––Samhain––which, over the centuries, evolved into our Halloween. Samhain marks, as well, in traditional reckoning of time, the transition to winter. With all of these November days since Samhain, since Halloween, our thoughts have gone deeper below the earth, just as the natural world also shifts its energy below the earth. Winter leads us there. Persephone leads us there. The trees take us there: The leaves have flown, all growth now is below, in the roots. This makes for stronger growth above ground come spring and summer: balance. As above, so below. Oh and guess what? November 11 is the old style date of Samhain. And here we are, then, at Martinmas.

It is, as well, Veteran’s Day, when we honor in the United States all who have served in the military. We used to call it Armistice Day, for it originally marked the signing of the armistice that ended the Great War, which is what we used to call World War I before World War II came to be. The armistice that brought peace after years of senseless fighting was signed in 1918 on Martinmas, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

So much associated with this day. One more thing: Martinmas is, traditionally, the time to taste the new wine, a fact certainly related to St. Martin’s patronage of winemakers and vineyard keepers. Each year’s Beaujolais Nouveau wines of France, always young wines, are typically released on or around Martinmas, and the day is often accompanied by a good meal featuring roast goose or turkey and chestnuts––typical harvest celebration foods––and, in Italy, Biscotti di San Martino: biscotti that are so hard, the only way to eat them, really, is to first dunk them in wine. My grandparents, all of them immigrants to the US from Italy, all made wine. My father was glad to get married and leave the winemaking that went on in his family home behind… but he married my mother, and her family made wine each autumn, too. The barrels that had to be cleaned out with water and chains, the crates of Zinfandel grapes that had to be washed and crushed… it was hard work, and I wish I could have been part of it. Winemaking is knowledge that has passed by the wayside in my family, drifted away. But certainly San Martino was important to all of my grandparents and to their wine. Grandpa made the wine, but Grandma made the cutto from the same must, the same grape juice, boiled down on the kitchen stove, reduced to a thick syrup, so specific to her region of Italy, used in desserts specific, too, to autumn and winter, some of which are full of meaning, too, as we remember those who have passed.

The winemaking, the slow all-day cooking of the syrup, the remembrance: all of these are related, returning us to Hollantide. We eat, we drink, we keep the bridges open. Our thoughts below the earth, yet above, too: you may see poppies this day, for Armistice Day, for remembrance, poppies that come out of another famous poem for November, this one by John McCrae: In Flanders fields the poppies blow / Between the crosses, row on row . . . . We are the Dead. Short days ago / We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, / Loved and were loved, and now we lie / in Flanders fields. We remember our veterans, we remember our winemakers, we remember all who have come and gone before us in these autumnal days as we continue to turn thoughts and actions inward with winter’s approach. These are rich traditions, tangible through tastes and aromas. And this, too, is why I now love November.

 

Image: I’ve used this photo before for Martinmas, but I can’t help using it again. I love the fact that every single person is raising a glass. The photo was taken, probably by my dad, at my sister Marietta’s christening dinner in Brooklyn in February, 1953. The folks in the picture are parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, godparents. The wine, no doubt, was my grandfather’s own vintage, and he is right there in the foreground, exuberant as he always was. Salute!

 

 

Martinmas

Salute

Here in the United States, November 11 is Veterans Day, a national holiday honoring all who have served in the military. Older folks remember it as Armistice Day, which began as a commemoration of the formal ending of World War I, or the Great War, as it was known before World War II. It was to be the war to end all wars…. which, of course, has not been the case. Still, the armistice that ended that war, signed at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, is, in countries on both sides of the Atlantic, remembered today. In 1954, Congress replaced the word “Armistice” with “Veterans,” and this is the name we have given this national holiday ever since.

The day marks a much older celebration, though. November 11 is the feast of St. Martin of Tours, who also happened to be a veteran, but of the Roman army. He was born in 316 in the part of the vast Roman Empire that is now Hungary and became a soldier when he was a young boy. He was part of the imperial calvary (which is why he is often depicted on horseback) and was sent to serve the empire in Gaul (which is now France). At some point, though, Martin had a change of heart: he converted to Christianity and became a pacifist and refused to fight. He was imprisoned for the pacifism he preached, but eventually was released. He became a monk and founded a monastery there in France.

Many of the legends that revolve around St. Martin happen to involve wine. The best known story is of him coming across a disheveled drunken man shivering in the cold on a bitter winter’s day; Martin saw the man, took off his own woolen cape, cut it in two with his sword, then wrapped one half around the cold man to warm him. In the Middle Ages, he was one of the more popular saints and became a patron saint of all kinds of folks, from tailors to innkeepers to the French monarchy… but perhaps St. Martin is best known as patron saint of grape growers and winemakers, and even of those who delight in wine (sometimes even of drunkards).

It is no wonder, then, that St. Martin’s Day, or Martinmas, has become associated with wine. It is the day to taste the year’s new wine, which has been fermenting by now for only a few weeks. French Beaujolais wines are still, to this day, released on or around Martinmas. His day is also the last big religious feast day before Advent, which was, in earlier days, a time of fasting, and so it was also a day for a good, hearty meal, often of goose or turkey––essentially, a meal of thanksgiving for the harvest. Traditional Martinmas foods include goose and turkey, and also chestnuts and very hard biscotti, some of which are baked not just twice but three times. Hard as rocks? You bet. But there’s a reason for that: Biscotti di San Martino are meant to be dunked in that new wine that we’re drinking on his day.

In the parts of Europe that most thoroughly celebrate St. Martin’s Day, it is often a time of warmer weather, the last bit of it before the full onset of winter. Kind of like Indian Summer in America, it’s known in Italy, for instance, as l’estate di San Martino (St. Martin’s Summer). But this mild weather tends to be fleeting. Colder nights lie ahead and with Martinmas we find ourselves, by traditional reckoning of time, at the natural start of winter. It is, until Yuletide, a time of increasing darkness. The living world continues its process of shutting down and receding into itself: going underground. Trees are no longer growing above, but roots below the surface still are growing. And so the connections are strong, these darkening days, between the world of the living and the underworld of the dead.

Of course we honored these days of the dead at the start of the month with Halloween and All Saints and All Souls. But the connection of Martinmas to the days of the dead is just as strong, through memory. Before the change to the Gregorian Calendar, the 11th of November was Samhain, the Celtic New Year. Another name for Martinmas is Hollantide, and just as Halloween is a corruption of the words All Hallow’s Eve, so is Hollandtide, which comes from Hallowtide: the time of the sacred, the holy––those who have gone before. Many of our contemporary Halloween traditions come out of Hollantide traditions: the carving of turnips (replaced by pumpkins here in America) into Jack o’Lanterns and the going door to door in search of soul cakes, which has evolved into the trick-or-treating we know today. The day is also a traditional weather marker: If ducks do slide at Hollantide, At Christmas they will swim. / If ducks do swim at Hollantide, At Christmas they will slide. / Winter is on his way / At St. Martin’s Day.

And so we continue turning inward at this time of year, gathering in, preparing for winter. By all means, though, warm the evening at Martinmas with wine. Light a fire while you’re at it. The Celts would have lit huge bonfires on Samhain to welcome in the new year, and in our case, a small celebration involving a fire in the hearth or in the fire pit in the back yard is just as good, and even better with a bottle of wine and some good company. Good St. Martin himself would have it no other way.

Today’s chapter was originally printed in the Convivio Book of Days on Martinmas 2013. Pictured above: Parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, godparents, raising their glasses at my sister’s christening dinner, Brooklyn 1953. “Salute!”

 

Dulce et Decorem Est

ArturoBersaglieri

It is the 11th of November, which is both Veterans Day and Martinmas. This particular melding of the federal holiday calendar with the traditional seasonal round of the year fascinates me. Veterans Day is the day we honor those who have served in the armed forces… but so many have lost their lives doing so, it by nature becomes a day of remembering the dead (even though Memorial Day in May is set aside especially for this purpose). Veterans Day began as Armistice Day, marking the end of World War I, or the Great War, as it was known earlier on. The armistice ending the war was signed earlier in the morning on November 11, 1918, but the cease fire took effect on the 11th hour of this 11th day of the 11th month.

Did they know, when that document was being signed on the 11th of November, 1918, that it was Martinmas? Sure they did; folks back then were much more attuned to the seasonal round and traditional ways. Did they understand the significance that Martinmas concludes our traditional time of remembering the dead, a time that began with All Hallows’ Eve and progressed through All Saints Day and All Souls Day? I don’t know, but I imagine they did. So many people lost their lives in that “war to end all wars,” and it would be right to honor them at Martinmas.

Another name for Martinmas is Hollantide. This has nothing to do with Holland, but it does have a lot to do with Halloween. Hollantide is a corruption of “Hallowtide.” These days and words are all related: the older name for All Saints Day on the First of November is All Hallows’ Day. Halloween, on October 31, is All Hallows’ Eve (written, earlier on––and not all that long ago––as Hallowe’en, with an apostrophe taking the place of the V in “Eve”). These eleven days since Halloween are the time (the “tide”) of All Hallows, when we remember our dead, when we retreat inward, just as the trees around us lose their leaves and focus their growth now below ground, building a strong root system to carry through the winter ahead and to usher forth new growth come spring. The dead and the roots share that same earth. It and we are one and the same. From that same earth grow the poppies in Flanders fields.

Martinmas itself is the feast day of St. Martin of Tours. He, too, was a veteran, of the Roman army. He converted to Christianity and became a pacifist and is known for his charitable works. Well, one in particular: on a cold winter’s night, Martin came across a poor, drunken man shivering in the cold. So he tore his own cloak in two, giving half to the drunken man for warmth. St. Martin is now a patron saint of tailors and winemakers… and of those who have had a little too much to drink. (Remember him during your next hangover.)

His day has become deeply associated with wine. Martinmas is the day to have a taste of the new wine, by now just a few weeks old. It is the day, traditionally, that the young Beaujolais wines of France are released. It is also the last big religious feast before advent, which used to be a time of fasting… and so Martinmas was also an excuse for a big meal, usually goose or turkey. And, since it is autumn, chestnuts, and in Italy, where these autumnal days of remembering the dead are known as I Morti, special biscotti that are baked not twice but thrice. Biscotti di San Martino are so hard and tough, you really can’t eat them without dunking them in wine first.

And so it is Martinmas, Hollantide, Veterans Day. I think of old family photos on this day, black and white photos, filled with aunts and uncles raising glasses toward the camera. I think of Wilfred Owen, the English poet who died in combat in France just a week before the Great War ended. His mother received the news of her son’s death on Armistice Day, while the village church bells rang in celebration. I think of my grandfather, Arturo. I grew up with him always nearby. He taught me how to hold a pool cue and how to play Eight Ball and Solids & Stripes, and we would play old Italian card games on 40-card Italian decks with bizarre pictures on them, games like Scopa and Briscola. He would pat my head and speak to me in Italian and I would answer in English and on the wall in one room of the house was the photograph you see above, a photo I used last year in this blog, but it’s so good it deserves a second printing. There he is: Arturo, my grandpa, a version of him I knew only as a photograph: a soldier in the Italian army, during the Great War. He was one of the Bersaglieri, an elite quick moving infantry unit in distinctive plumed caps. Even today, the Bersaglieri do not march; they trot. (That video, too, is worth a reprint from last year.)

And so on this day we remember the veterans, we remember the dead, we remember the people toasting the camera. We honor them all, the winemakers, the drunkards, St. Martin himself. Our days remembering the dead conclude now as autumn progresses. Soon will come advent, soon will come winter, soon will come the longest night… and eventually the poppies in Flanders field will bloom again.

 

Follow

Get every new post on this blog delivered to your Inbox.

Join other followers: