Did you know that Estonians have their own Halloween?

“Old Halloween,” or alternatively  “Saint Martin’s Day,” is celebrated on November 11 according to the Catholic calendar. But in some countries like Estonia and Latvia, the last Christianized countries in Europe, the celebration occurs on Eve. This was traditionally the time when autumn wheat seeding was completed, and the annual slaughter of fattened cattle produced “Martinmas beef” occurred. This day people also harvested big quantities of wood for the fire. Historically speaking, hiring fairs were held where farm laborers would seek new posts.

Origin and meaning of the celebration

The holiday originated from France which later spread to many other countries. St. Martin was known as a friend of the children and the patron of the peasants or the poor. Martinmas, as a date on the calendar, has two meanings: in the agricultural calendar it marks the beginning of natural winter, but in the economic calendar it is seen as the end of autumn. The feast coincides not only with the end of the Octave of All Saints, but with harvest-time when the newly produced wine is ready for drinking, and the end of winter preparations, including the butchering of animals. Because of this, St., Martin’s Feast is much like the American Thanksgiving – a celebration of the earth’s bounty. Because it also comes before the penitential season of Advent, it is seen as a mini “Carnivale”, with all the feasting and bonfires.

The celebration is widely spread in other countries, including neighboring countries Latvia and Russia.  This carnival can also occur In Western Europe, in locations such as Belgium, Flanders and the German Rhine region. The traditions of eating geese, drinking wine or alcohol, and walking in the streets during the evening with a lantern (light of sun, moon or star) are similar in all those regions.

The forms of celebration

Martinmas celebrations begin at the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of this eleventh day of the eleventh month (that is, at 11:11 am on November 11),  forty days from the start of the winter solstice.

In others, the festivities commence on St. Martin’s Eve (that is, on November 10). It is particularly popular among children, students, and the rural population. Bonfires are built and children carry lanterns in the streets after dark, singing songs for which they are rewarded with candy. In Latvia and Estonia, they make some jokes and riddles. They flog people with branches. They knock at each door, throwing some seeds, peas or rice into the houses to bring health and fertility to the house’s inhabitants. If people reject them, they receive bad fortune wishes. Those celebrating St. Martin’s Eve usually like to wear masks and costumes for the celebration, which are both symbols of Martin.

As nature is upside-down, especially in the area of Estonia and Latvia, where winter means a long time of darkness with an average of four hours of sunshine a day on the winter solstice, people also reverse their roles. Men change into women, young people into old people, rich people into poor people, and vice versa.

Mardipäev in Estonia, Mārtiņi or Mārtiņdiena in Latvia, is the men’s feast. The women’s feast follows a few days afterward, on the 25th of November. Women celebrating wear white and go from door to door to collect gifts, such as food, cloth, and wool, in return for suitable songs and blessings.

A lot of carnivals in the world still celebrate the beginning and end of winter, the rhythm of the earth, death, and renaissance, ultimately celebrating the irony of human existence, such as Sardinia Island in Italy. The similarities from different countries in the carnival tradition are confusing and thrilling. Some associations and groups throughout the world are helping to keep those traditions alive. It’s also the role of some museums, like the Open Air museums of Latvia and Estonia, to facilitate the organization of such events: On Sunday, the National Estonian museum played such a role, welcoming masks made in the wool workshop and hosting performances of different St. Martin dances.

I would like to thank Mathilde Rivet, who works as an intern in Estonian National Museum, who provided me detailed information about the St. Martin’s Day tradition in Estonia.