Although most of us are aware of the tradition, and some give a nod of penitence towards it, very few of us participate in the lent fast. However, it would be even harder to imagine giving up the mince pies, advent calendars and hearty winter meals we indulge in over December. For medieval Britons marking St Martin’s Fast, this would have been all too real an experience.
The ‘other’ lent consists of 40 days of fasting before giving thanks for the birth of Christ on Christmas day. The first mention of this practice in the western church can be found in scriptures from the 4th century, though it is likely that it was observed before then. The Quadragesima Sancti Martini (40 days of St Martin) was not as strict a fast as the lent fast. Most worshippers would have taken a break for Gaudete Sunday, which is marked between the 11th and 17th of December.
It was in the medieval period that St Martin’s Fast became a widespread tradition. This was helped in no small way by the extravagance of the November 11th St Martin’s Eve celebrations that hailed the fast as it arrived. Martinmas was marked with extravagant feasts, even by the peasantry. As it coincided with the end of autumn and the beginning of winter, it was often used to enjoy the produce that was ripe for harvesting, before the shortfalls of winter set in.
Goose was the symbol of St Martin, supposedly due to a slightly bizarre legend involving Martin himself hiding in a goose pen. However, November was also the slaughtering season for geese and so the goose as a centrepiece of the feast would have had as much to do with practicality as with symbolism. One of the other, more likely, food legends surrounding St Martin of Tours was that he introduced the Chenin Blanc grape variety and so, in France at least, the feast also marked the end of the viticulture of this grape which would certainly have helped the celebratory atmosphere.
It was during this period that the church increasingly shortened the fast’s duration and eventually the 24 days of advent were widely adopted in place of the 40 days of St Martin’s Fast. Rather than require a fast, the Catholic Church now marks the period through penitence. Despite this, the fast that precedes Christmas hasn’t completely disappeared. Eastern Orthodox churches still fast for varying periods before the nativity, so spare a thought for their members as you pop the chocolate out of your advent calendar over the next couple of weeks.