St. Martin’s Day

09 Jul 2021
Visit Poznań in November and you’ll find the city turned into croissant-land, with bakery after bakery rolling out huge trays of calorie-dense rogale świętomarcińskie (St. Martin’s croissants) topped with a healthy pile of sugary glaze. To someone unfamiliar with regional traditions, this is likely to raise an eyebrow and several questions: Why are these pastries monopolizing the local market? Why would you name them after a Catholic saint? Are Posnaniacs immune to type 2 diabetes?
Well, the regional treat you can’t seem to get away from is an indispensable part of St. Martin’s Day festivities taking place on and around November 11th. The date marks the saint’s official feast day, also known as Martinmas, which is not a Polish invention - the holiday has been around since the Middle Ages, spreading from France outward, and is still observed (perhaps not with the greatest zeal) in some regions of Europe. Poznań makes the short list due to the city’s long-standing association with the fine chap, dating back to 1240 when a church bearing his name was erected by Prince Przemysł I (according to some accounts). A settlement soon grew around the premises, becoming known simply as St. Martin, and was absorbed into Poznań in the late 18th century. A reminder of days past is St. Martin Street (ul. Święty Marcin), which now stretches from Rondo Kaponiera to the Hipolit Cegielski Monument, bypassing the Adam Mickiewicz University, the 1956 memorial, the Imperial Castle, and - naturally - an iteration of St. Martin’s Church itself, standing proudly despite a turbulent history of invasions and fires.

It is this street that sees a yearly colourful parade celebrating Martin’s big day. Resurrected in 1994 by the Zamek Cultural Centre and officially named ‘St. Martin Street Name Day’, the festival starts with a high mass in the aforementioned St. Martin’s Church. Afterwards, St. Martin himself, dressed in a Roman legionnaire’s costume and mounted on a horse, heads a colourful parade up ul. Św. Marcin to the square in front of the Zamek/Imperial Castle. There, the mayor hands him the keys to the city, marking the start of the celebrations involving a street market with variable levels of kitsch (and critically high levels of croissants), knights enacting medieval jousting tournaments, and special exhibitions, concerts, and performances inside the Zamek. The day ends with a bang as a hugely popular fireworks show lights up the skies.

Each October and November, as the festivities are drawing nearer, something akin to cronut fever erupts in the city, except no one has to get up at 5 am to stand in line - in an almost perfect example of perfect competition (hello, 12th-grade econ), virtually all of Poznań’s bakeries give this complex pastry their best shot, meaning that at any given time you’re probably only a few feet from sweet temptation. It’s not all up to the baker’s imagination, however; rogale świętomarcińskie are a legally-protected name, and businesses must obtain an official certificate before peddling their creations. According to the traditional recipe, the flaky pastry should contain a paste made out of white poppy seeds with the addition of sugar, butter, eggs, almonds and other nuts, crumbled biscuits, raisins, and candied orange peel, but slight tweaks are allowed. Another strict requirements is that the croissants must be baked in Poznań or one of a few other designated counties in Wielkopolska, so if you want the real stuff - you can only get it here.

Just how old is this tradition? Well, the oldest advertisement for rogale świętomarcińskie has been found in an 1860 newspaper, but their history should perhaps be traced to pagan times, when oxen were sacrificed during the autumn holiday to please the deities; if cattle were lacking, enterprising worshippers used horn-shaped pastries as a substitute. Meanwhile, a popular legend places the start of rogale in 1891, when the parish priest of St. Martin’s urged the richer parishioners to help the poor as winter approached; a baker by the name of Józef Melzer prayed to St. Martin for ideas and turning to the street was inspired as the horse carrying the saint in the parade slipped a shoe – hence their crescent shape.

If you missed the feast day, worry not: luckily for all those with a sweet tooth, the croissants’ marvellous popularity means that they can now be found year-round, so poke your nose into a few pastry shops if you’re here significantly after St. Martin’s Day, and you’re sure to procure one or two. For those craving a more in-depth experience (and the chance to bake their own rogal), any-time-of-the-year St. Martin’s cheer is available at the city’s Croissant Museum, which has recently made a home for itself right on the Main Square.

Lastly, let’s take a look at this Martin character, and why is he worthy of such sweets and fanfare (not to mention sainthood status). Also known as Martin of Tours, the man was at one time one of the top most popular Catholic saints and a patron of damn near everyone: children, innkeepers, cavaliers, hat makers, blacksmiths, tailors, millers, weavers, travellers, prisoners, winemakers, beggars, soldiers, teetotallers, geese, and the entire country of France. Born in what is now Hungary in the fourth century, Martin was raised in Italy where he was conscripted as a member of the Imperial Horse Guard in the Roman army. As legend has it, he was stationed in wintry France at the age of 18 when he came across a shivering beggar and decided to cut his cloak in half to share with the man. That very night Martin dreamt of Jesus wearing the half-cloak (or, according to some stories, woke to find his cloak fully restored) and decided to be baptised.

St. Martin and the army were not a good match; having a distaste for bloodshed and violence, the young soldier refused to fight in a key battle, even volunteering to go unarmed in front of the troops when his superiors charged him with cowardice. Luckily for the suicidal conscientious objector, the battle never took place, and a kick in the pants sending him right out of the army was the most severe consequence.

Freed of his duty, Martin made his way to Tours (then known as Caesarodunum) and became a disciple of Hilary of Poitiers, a proponent of Trinitarian Christianity that was at odds with the Arianism of the day. After adventures including confronting the devil, converting most of his family and the entirety of a random Alpine brigand to Christianity, and getting expelled from Milan by the Arian archbishop, Martin finally settled down to establish a hermitage that eventually became the Ligugé Abbey.
Some years later, Martin was obligated to drop his largely hermit-like existence when the people of Tours positively insisted that he become their bishop and would not take no for an answer; according to the most probable account, the preacher was tricked into travelling to Tours to minister to a sick man, but instead was dragged into the church and consecrated. A more vivid story has the poor fellow hiding in a barn full of geese, only to be given away by their startled noises - which was later used to justify excessive feasting on plump goose meat in November, before Advent rolled around and the pre-Christmas fasting period began. Even today, many Poznań restaurants offer ‘St. Martin’s Goose’ (Gęś św. Marcina) around November 10th, so keep an eye out for those if you’re in town.

As bishop, Martin continued to sow Christianity among the Druidic heathens, destroy pagan temples, and promote the interests of the Church at the Imperial court in Trier until he passed on in 397, his grave becoming a pilgrimage site drawing throngs of devotees throughout the Middle Ages.


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