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.
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?