Celebrating San Martino in Venice

The day starts quietly enough. Street sweepers prepare the city. Church bells call the faithful to worship. And the Grand Canal gently fills with vaporetti water-buses as locals go off to school and work. The Venetian tranquility is, however, abruptly shattered shortly after lunch. Class-fulls of children swarm through the streets singing at the top of their voices and banging pots and pans. Welcome to La Festa di San Martino, or St Martin’s Day!

Local children beat out the rhythm on their pots and pans

Local children beat out the rhythm on their pots and pans

Much like Halloween the Venetian festival of San Martino gives children the chance to dress up, overdose on sweets and biscuits and generally make a hullabaloo. But instead of celebrating the dead, San Martino recalls a selfless act of kindness. So just who was San Martino and why is he celebrated?

Bas-relief of San Martino on the Church of San Martino in Castello, Venice. Photo from Wikipedia via Creative Commons

Bas-relief of San Martino on the Church of San Martino in Castello, Venice. Photo from Wikipedia via Creative Commons

Legend has it the man was born in Pannonia, Hungary in 315 AD. He was named Martino after Mars, the god of war, and later enlisted in the Roman cavalry fighting in Gaul, now modern-day France. So far, so ordinary.

Church of San Martino, Castello, Venice. Photo credit Wikipedia via Creative Commons

Church of San Martino, Castello, Venice. Photo credit Wikipedia via Creative Commons

One day, during a snowstorm, however, Martino met a poor man covered in rags at the gates of Amiens in France. The starving man asked for help against the freezing weather and, taking pity, the cavalryman cut his warm, red cloak in half so each of them could shelter from the cold. At that moment, so the story goes, the sun came out to warm the men, hence what Brits would call an Indian summer is known locally as an estate di San Martino – St Martin’s summer.

Mini Samartin biscuits

Mini Samartin biscuits

Martino later dreamt of Jesus wrapped in his red cloak, thanking the military man for his compassion. He went on to become a monk and to live a serene, charitable life. The first festivals remembering his actions started in 5th century France before spreading across Europe.

Autumn leads to Winter

Autumn leads to Winter

San Martino also marks the shift from Autumn to Winter in the agricultural calendar. It is the day on which the vino novella, or new wine, is traditionally tasted for the first time – A San Martino ogni mosto diventa vino as the Italians say (meaning On S. Martin’s day every wine must turns into wine). And the festival often marks the point when animals are butchered. San Martino is the last big feast of the year before 40 days of fasting, or Martinmas, begin prior to Christmas. And for Venetians the festival also indicates a change in vegetable and spice seasons too as the cold winter months require hotter spices to add heat to winter dishes.

School children practice their singing and drumming in Campo San Polo, Venice

School children practice their singing and drumming in Campo San Polo, Venice

But whilst the adults concentrate on wine-tasting and warm chestnuts, the children of Venice turn their attention to more serious matters – dressing up, singing and making as much noise as they want in the hope of getting lots of sweets and money to buy biscuits!

Pan lids get a bashing all in the name of San Martino!

Pan lids get a bashing all in the name of San Martino!

Dressed in crowns, horses-heads and red cloaks the little ones take to the streets throughout the afternoon and early evening armed with all manner of kitchen utensils to bang and bash! Pots and biscuit tins make great drums, pan lids the cymbals. And wooden spoons, ladles and drumsticks beat out the rhythm or are used as swords against pan lid shields in mock sword fights. Its great fun to watch and the kids clearly love it too!

Sword fights with wooden spoons and pan-lid shields!

Sword fights with wooden spoons and biscuit tin shields!

And the bigger the racket, the better, it seems, as they go from shop to shop clanging and clattering and singing the San Martino nursery rhyme. According to a local friend the song’s simple Venetian lyrics recall the man and then, similarly to trick or treat, urge generous shopkeepers to share some sweets or money or risk unpleasant, yet amusing, reprisals such as pimples on their bum!

The kids sing for sweets, biscuits and cash!!

The kids sing for sweets, biscuits and cash outside a local shop!

And there is one particular biscuit that the children are after. Samartins, pronounced sa-mar-TEENs, are traditional Venetian short crust biscuits made especially for San Martino.

Viva San Martino! Long live St Martin!

Viva San Martino! Long live St Martin!

Made in the shape of the cavalryman dressed in his cape and with his sword drawn, samartins are covered in brightly coloured icing, sugar and chocolates and start appearing in patisseries about 2 weeks before San Martino.

Samartin biscuits come in all sizes and colours

Samartin biscuits come in all sizes and colours

The multi-coloured biscuits come in a variety of sizes too from a small cookie sized one at around €1.50 right up to a 2 foot tall, “family-sized” one at €50!

Pasticceria Rizzadini's windows are full of San Martino biscuits

Pasticceria Rizzardini’s windows are full of San Martino biscuits

The evening before San Martino patisseries around the city stay open late so locals can pick up their orders. My local Rizzardini patisserie in San Polo was doing a roaring trade in some massive samartins as dads and granddads collected their precious treats.

Bar Rizzardini was doing a roaring trade in samartin biscuits

Bar Rizzardini was doing a roaring trade in samartin biscuits

And like most shops Rizzardini’s also had bowls full of the older, more traditional cotognata sweets made from quince jelly that can be bought throughout the Halloween and San Martino fortnight.

Cotognata quince jelly sweets - yummy!!

Cotognata quince jelly sweets – yummy!!

Its great to see such an old local tradition being passed from generation to generation and long may it continue, despite competition from imported festivities such as Halloween. And now you know what San Martino is all about, you can keep your eyes peeled for the Samartin and cotognata sweets. And get ready to be gently fleeced by cloaked children banging their pots and pans or you risk a pimply bum, you have been warned! If you have a favourite Italian festival leave me a comment below and lets share them to keep these wonderful traditions alive!

Useful Information

San Martino’s day is celebrated on 11th November

San Martino is the patron saint of horses, tailors, innkeepers, the poor and patisseries!

A song to San Martino in Venetian dialect

San Martin xe ‘ndà in sofita
A trovar la so novissa.
So novissa no ghe gera,
El xe ‘ndà col cuo par tera
Viva viva san Martin
Viva el nostro re del vin!

San Martin m’ha mandà qua
Che ghe fassa la carità.
Anca lu col ghe n’aveva,
Carità el ghe ne fasseva
Viva viva san Martin
Viva el nostro re del vin!

Fè atension che semo tanti
E gavemo fame tuti quanti
Stè tenti a no darne poco
Perché se no stemo qua un toco!

If you receive something you carry on with –

E con questo ringraziemo
Del bon anemo e del bon cuor
‘N altro ano tornaremo
Se ghe piase al bon Signor
E col nostro sachetin
Viva, viva S.Martin.

But if you haven’t received something you sing –

Tanti ciodi gh’è in sta porta
Tanti diavoli che ve porta
Tanti ciodi gh’è in sto muro
Tanti bruschi ve vegna sul culo.

E CHE VE MORA EL PORSEO!

Alternative lyrics

San Martin se ‘nda’ in sofita
par trovar la so novissa
la novissa no ghe gera
San Martin col cul par tera.
E col nostro sachetin
cari signori se San Martin

Su ‘sta casa ghe ze do putele
tute risse e tute bele
col viseto delicato
so papà ghe lo ga’ stampato
E col nostro sachetin
cari signori se San Martin

Siora Cate ze tanto bela
In mezo ‘l peto la ga’ na stela
Se no la gavesse meritada
So papà no ghe la gavaria dada.
E col nostro sachetin
cari signori se San Martin

Siora lussia la fassa presto
Ch’el caligo ne vien adosso
el ne vien adosso sul scarselin
siora Lussia ze San Martin
E col nostro sachetin
cari signori se San Martin

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12 Responses to Celebrating San Martino in Venice

  1. Yvonne says:

    It’s so good to see this tradition living on in Venice.

    • lizbert1 says:

      Isn’t it! It was so special to see the children practising in San Polo and then going off round the shops etc as passing adults joined in the songs! Clearly its a special day for Venetians and it reminds us that Venice is still a living city with generations of families holding on in the city centre. Viva San Martino!

  2. Lovely blog post! Love anything connected to Venice, to children, and to customs. You hit them all!

    • lizbert1 says:

      Thank you so much! The local customs fascinate me, especially the fun ones or the ones with special food!! Not that I need an excuse to try new biscuits!!! Thanks for re-blogging too, its hugely appreciated! :o)

  3. Fishink says:

    Looks like another worthy excuse to have more chocolate to me lol Fab reporting as ever, telling us more about the Italian world that we knew nothing about : ) Yay

  4. joanfrankham says:

    what a lovely tradition, still living on.

  5. Wow I had no idea about the festivities in Venezia for San Martino! Your post was very enlightening and as always, great photos! And the dolci look delicious!!
    Grazie:)

    • lizbert1 says:

      Thanks Lia and I can testify that the dolci were indeed delicious!!! Am looking forward to more festivities later this month and for Christmas too, Italians just know how to celebrate!

  6. LOVED how decked out Rizzardini is for this holiday….really enjoyed learning about this holiday and seeing how the tradition is clearly loved and celebrated by the locals…..thanks as always for bringing Venice “home” to me Lizzie 🙂 xxoo

    • lizbert1 says:

      My pleasure Cecelia, you would have loved it! Rizzardinis was rammed around tea time the day before San Martino as all the dads and granddads were waiting to pick up their orders – I could hardly get to the counter to get my evening cake!!! ;o) Viva San Martino!!

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