One of Poznań’s younger traditions is the celebration of St. Martin’s name day on November 11th. In Poland, name days (imieniny) are widely celebrated and have traditionally been given a greater importance than birthday celebrations. Printed in every local calendar, these name days represent the feast days of Catholic saints.
In 1994, the Zamek cultural centre organised the first name day celebration of the street it is on - Św. Marcin (St. Martin) - bringing the ancient tradition of public celebrations of patron saints back to prominence in Poznań. The city is associated with St. Martin’s thanks to St. Martin’s church, which originally stood in a settlement outside the walls of Poznań beginning around the 12th century, but was brought inside the boundaries at the end of the 18th century. Unsurprisingly the street gained its name from the church - though during communist times it was changed to 'Armii Czerwonej,' or Red Army Street, before being restored to Św. Marcin after 1989.
The festival naturally 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.
Outside, there’s a street market complete with knights enacting medieval jousting tournaments. Inside Zamek there are special exhibitions, concerts and performances. The day ends with fireworks lighting the skies above.
Such a special holiday calls for a very specific treat to honour St. Martin, and that’s rogale świętomarcińskie, a crescent-shaped croissant-like pasty filled with a poppy seed and almond paste and topped with a healthy pile of sugary glaze. Legend has it that the tradition of rogale began at the end of the 19th century 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 the crescent shape of the pastries.
So just who was this Martin character, and why is he worthy of such sweets and fanfare (not to mention sainthood status)? Born in what is now Hungary in the fourth century, Martin was raised in Italy where he became a member of the Imperial Horse Guard in the Roman army. Stationed in France he came across a shivering beggar and decided to cut his cloak in half to share with the man. That evening Martin, aged 18, dreamed of Jesus wearing the half-cloak (in some stories, Martin wakes to find his cloak fully restored) and decided to be baptised. After being discharged from the army he became a disciple of Hilary of Poitiers (Saint Hilary nowadays), a proponent of Trinitarian Christianity that was at odds with the Arianism of the day.
Another legend tells how later in life Martin did not want to become a bishop so tried to avoid those looking for him by hiding among some geese. The noise of the geese apparently gave him away and Martin was made the Bishop of Tours. With Christians traditionally beginning a 40-day period of fasting on St. Martin’s Day ahead of Christmas Eve, the night before (St. Martin's Eve) saw feasting where roast goose was a favourite dish as it is at this time of the year when a goose is at its plumpest. So keep your eyes out for restaurants offering St. Martin’s Goose (Gęś św. Marcina) around November 10th.
As bishop Martin continued to live a largely hermetic existence; his work included sowing Christianity among the Druidic heathens and promoting the interests of the Church at the Imperial court in Trier. One such example includes Martin’s efforts to save Priscillian, a Christian bishop he opposed, from punishment by a civil tribunal that accused Priscillian of heresy. Despite Martin’s efforts Priscillian was the first person in the history of Christianity to be executed for heresy, and the sadly disappointed Martin died in Gaul in 397.