In Germany, it is a very old tradition to eat a goose on St Martin's Day, 11 November. As is often the case with traditions, somebody at some point apparently needed an explanation for this custom, which would explain the legends that were created, linking geese and the reason why they should be eaten to this man:
St Martin of Tours
Martin of Tours was born circa 316 in Sabarina, Pannonia, Hungary. He joined the Roman army under Emperors Constantine and Julian when he was 15. He soon became a follower of Christianity, which had started spreading in the camps following Constantine's conversion. One very cold day, near the city gate of Amiens, France, Martin saw a beggar who was freezing. He took his sword and cut his cloak in two, giving one half to the beggar. The next night, he dreamed he had given his cloak to Jesus.
At the age of 18, Martin was baptised. He left the army and went on to become a disciple of the famous Bishop Hilarius at Poitiers. After a while he missed his parents, so he went to see them and christened them before he left to live a life as a hermit on the island of Gallinaria.As Catholicism wasn't very widespread at the time and its opponents had sent Bishop Hilarius into exile, Martin stayed on the island, keeping a low profile for a while. Upon learning that Bishop Hilarius had come back to France (then known as 'Gaul') in 360, Martin returned to his side.
In 361, he went to live in a hermitage in nearby Liguge, France, soon to be followed by many monks. It was here that the first monastery of the Occident, the Benedictine Abbey of Liguge was founded. During the ten years he spent in Liguge he often visited the rural areas to preach and give goods to the poor. When the Bishop of Tours died in 371, the citizens of Tours elected Martin as their new bishop. He was reluctant to accept, but was eventually consecrated on 4 July, 371. He continued to live a life as a hermit and was again soon followed by other monks. The resulting monastery of Marmoutier, Tours, has kept its name to this day.
Martin went on leading his simple life, spreading Christianity throughout Tourraine. The commonly accepted, though unproven, year of his death was 397, when he died from an illness which befell him on one of his travels. A basilica was later built above his tomb. St Martin was regarded as one of the greatest saints by the French church and his cult was very popular during the Middle Ages. Many a legend was built around his person and his deeds during his lifetime and after his death. St Martin was the first person to be canonised who was not a martyr.
St Martin's Day Traditions
A celebration takes place in the basilica near Tours, France, which contains St Martin's remains. In the countries of Germany, the Netherlands, Austria and parts of Switzerland, processions take place, often led by a 'St Martin' on a horse, sometimes even featuring the beggar. In some regions, children with lanterns go from house to house, singing and collecting sweets. In other regions children and adults go through the streets, carrying torches or home-made lanterns and singing St Martin songs, sometimes accompanied by a brass band. The procession often ends in front of a St Martin's bonfire, where a sweetbread in the shape of a bishop2 is usually distributed and eaten.
So where do the geese come into the story?
Long after St Martin's death, two legends were told connecting St Martin with geese. One legend says that on hearing that he was to be the new Bishop of Tours, St Martin hid in a goose barn, thinking he wasn't worthy of the honourable office. The loud honking of the geese betrayed him, though. Another legend says that noisy geese disturbed a service St Martin held, which annoyed him so much that they ended up as a roast on the table and have done so ever since.
Facts and Beliefs
Since the 6th Century, the seven weeks of fasting leading up to Christmas ('Old Advent') started on St Martin's day, or Martini. It was the day when the financial and the farming year used to end. Cattle and fowl that wouldn't make it through the winter were slaughtered and salted for conservation. Like sharecropping, geese - which by this time of year were fully grown and plump enough - were either part of the rent paid to the lord, or were given by the lord to the tenants who attended on him. It was the day when farm labourers and handmaidens were dismissed and given a goose as a gift. New farm labourers and handmaidens were also hired on this day. The families prepared for the dark times of winter by the fireside.
The Martin's goose was said to have healing powers. Its fat (rubbed in) was thought to help against gout and its blood against fever. A feather from the left wing, burnt and mixed with wine, was believed to be a miracle cure for epilepsy. Even the wishbone of a goose had a meaning: if two people held one end each and broke it, the one with the larger end was thought to have their wish fulfilled. If the bone was pale and white, the winter was expected to be meagre and cold but if it was of a red colour, supplies were expected to last through the winter. In Germany, there is a tradition of eating geese in winter, starting with the 'Martin's goose' on 11 November. From that day on, you'll find a meal of goose with red cabbage and potato dumplings on the menu of most restaurants until about Christmas, when the season ends.