Festival of St Martin: Time for Children to Drink Wine and Play with Naked Flames

Throughout early November, the weather here in Sicily is often still warm and summery enough to go for a swim in the sea. We Sicilian housewives are still walking about in our boob tubes and hot pants (or something like that) while our poor fellow Europeans, up in Germany and England, are getting wet and bedraggled in coats and boots.

Sicilians call this period L’estate di San Martino – Saint Martin’s summer. It’s what we refer to in English as an Indian Summer.

Saint Martin’s day is today, 11th November. Saint Martin’s summer is supposed to end today, and he was right on time. Today it is damn cold! Oh alright, it’s 17 degrees centigrade. After a summer in Sicily, that is DAMN cold. DAMN! And it’s raining too.

Saint Martin was a soldier in the Roman army. One day, outside his barracks, he saw a beggar in the street, shivvering and half naked. He immediately tore his robe in half and gave half of it to the beggar. The miracle that this generous act provoked was the appearance of a sudden, out-of-season heatwave. It is this late, almost second summer that matures the grapes in Sicily used to make special types of wine, and these are drunk in honour of Saint Martin each year.

San Martino

Saint Martin’s is celebrated by dipping very hard aniseed biscuits into Sicilian desert wines like Marsala, Moscato, Malvasia and Passito. These wines are pretty unique and have an aroma like raisins.

The biscuits come in various forms – as with most things in Sicily, they are very regional. Some are rock hard – much too tooth-crackingly hard to eat if you don’t dip them in wine. Others, where I live, are decorated in the most extravagant way imaginable, with swirls of multi-coloured icing and rice-paper flowers in many colours on top. Some are made in the shape of geese, others in the shape of Saint Martin on horseback, covered in multi-coloured sweets. Follow this link to a selection of photos on Google to see the amazing variety.

Wine and rock hard biscuits are for the adults, of course. The kids where we live are adopting their own tradition which, I believe, originated in Germany. They make paper lanterns each year and form a procession in the streets in the evening, with candles in their lanterns, singing the traditional songs for Saint Martin.

Yes, honestly, they let gangs of four-year-olds, dozens of ‘em,  walk about holding naked flames inside highly flammable tissue paper models of their own construction. The first time my son did this with his companions from nursery school, I nearly frothed at the mouth.

Apparenty the lanterns represent the warmth that burned in Saint Martin’s heart, which triggered the extra days of hot summer. I was worried about this warmth burning out of my son’s heart and igniting his anorak, of course.

I eventually decided to go with the lantern thing and, really, I was very impressed. They had taught the children all about fire safety, and every single one of them was as sensible as an adult. I suppose it is the same philosophy as the French giving wine to five-year-olds: if you teach children to treat something with the appropriate respect, and demand that they behave maturely, they do so. I do know some Sicilians who also let their kids try dipping biscuits into wine on Saint Martin’s day as well. If all the adults are raving about the new wine of the season, why shouldn’t the kids find out what all the fuss is about?

This way of treating childen is being disseminated by German-style kindergartens which are gaining popularity in Sicily. It is the antithesis of the old Sicilian approach to treating offspring, which is to baby them as much as they will let you, for as long as they will let you. This is why Sicilian kids as old as nine have lie-down temper tantrums for a toy they want, and nobody assumes they are mentally retarded. This is why Sicilian teenagers suddenly lurch into the road as you are approaching them at high speed in your car, in blissful ignorance of their near-death experience. This is why Sicilian teenage boys don’t mind walking about in public holding their mother’s hand. This is why many Sicilians still live with their parents when they are 40, and don’t even feel embarrassed about it. It is why my beloved Hubby sometime takes the laundry to his mother when I go away on business trips. (Bless him! And bless her! I find it all ironed by the time I get back.)

Perhaps, thanks to the invasion of a German Saint Martin tradition, the younger generation of Sicilians will be a bit more mature. Though I bet they’ll still live with their Mums till they get married; the tradition of the Sicilian Mamma will NEVER end.

By the way, I’ìve just created a Facebook page to go with this blog:
I am new to this kind of thing. I have no idea what I am doing in fact!
Anyone got any good ideas for my Facebook page?


15 Comments Add yours

  1. Great post. We have been due to go to St Martin lantern parades here in Germany too. But ironically, it’s too cold to go out – for me anyway! As for hoping the German invasion helps Sicilians mature a little, in Bavaria it seems a lot of people and even families still live at home when they’re older, although yes, they are terribly mature at the same time.


    1. Very mature people, living at home with their Mum!!!! Maybe that’s where the future of Sicily lies! 🙂


  2. lee3731 says:

    I love this blog. Spent ten days in Sicily in July. My new book, The Sisters: Ten Days in Sicily, a comedy/mystery will be out soon.
    L.L. Lee


    1. That sounds interesting. Do post a link to the book on Amazon when it is out, OK?


      1. lee3731 says:

        Yes, will definitely post a link to the book on Facebook & Twitter. Thanks.
        L.L. Lee (Lee)


  3. T. Franke says:

    You describe exactly my German childhood expierence with Saint Martin: A procession of children with paper lantern, real candles inside, and … well … sometimes it burns … great! Children like fire! I heard that today many kindergartens in Germany use electric “candles” which is not the same as a really burning fire, what a pity. And what is more: This year, we have a big discussion in German media because some kindergartens started to rename the “Saint Martin” festival into “Sun Moon and Stars” festival. Why? Because many children in Germany today belong to the Islamic religion, and – this is important – not the Muslims themselves wanted the renaming, but some culturally relativistic Germans (not to say these #$§ß% and *!<#§+ Germans) think they should "show respect" on this way …


    1. It’s good that Sicilians are letting their children play with fire, now that the Germans are trying to make their kids the babyish ones! 😉
      What a terible shame to pervert a centuries old tradition for no good reason. There are people doing similar things in Britain too, and the rest of us dislike it very much. If the Muslims really hated Saint Martin’s festival, they would never have moved to Germany in the first place, would they?


  4. Expat Eye says:

    Great post! God, if a guy in Ireland still lived with his parents when he was 40, he’d be shunned 😉


    1. I know, same in England. It’s hilarious isn’t it!
      My dear Hubby was actually living with his mother till we got married – he was 36 when I snatched him away from her. Ha haaaa!!!!!!!!!!!!! She’s hated me ever since.
      I think she was planning to keep him trapped there till her death, to provide his services as a free 24-hour plumber, electrician, carpenter and plasterer and, ultimately, live-in geriatric nurse. Of course I had alternative plans for him, which were way more appealing. 😉


      1. Expat Eye says:

        She should be grateful you saved him! 🙂


  5. Great post..Nice to know so many thing, thanks 🙂


  6. frankieandgiuseppe says:

    Interesting post. Is San Martino only celebrated in Sicily do you know? I’ve certainly never heard of it in Rome. The aniseed biscuits are ubiquitous however, and I hate them! I always go ‘ooh’ when they bring out the biscuits at the end of a meal only to discover to my dismay they’re those horrid aniseed rocks!


    1. Ha haaa! I absolutely hate aniseed too.
      I don’t know if they celebrate San Martino in the rest of Italy. Maybe they are just more low-key in other areas?? Sicilians love any excuse for some unusual food or a bit of partying!


  7. unwillingexpat says:

    I love San Martino and the Saint’s got a beautiful story to him too. Anything to swill beautiful Sicilian wine, purely medicinal purposes of course, it’s been too cold.
    Just to let you know I’ve really loved your blog this year so I’ve nominated it for an Italy Magazine Blogger Award in the category of Best Living in Italy blog. Sharing the blog love! All the best to you!


    1. Thank you so much for nominating my blog! I am delighted mostly that you have really been enjoying it, and also that you thought of me.
      I think my favourite part of San Martino is actually seeing the children with their lanterns, they are so adorable.


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