Long ago on a cold and rainy November 11, a former Roman soldier named Martino came across a man stumbling and shivering on the road. Although he wanted to help, Martino had no money or blanket to offer. And so he took out his sword, slashed his cloak and gave half to the man.
As Martino rode off with a joyful heart, the sun appeared through a break in the clouds, and the day grew warmer. That night Jesus appeared in Martin’s dream with half of the cloak in his hand and thanked him for his compassion.
The warm days of early November –- known as Indian summer in the United States –- are called “l’estate di San Martino” (the summer of St. Martin) in Italy. People in various regions celebrate the saint’s feast by eating chestnuts and uncorking the vino novello (new wine) from the recent vendemmia (grape harvest). As a traditional saying puts it, “Per San Martino, cadono le foglie e si spilla il vino.” (For St. Martin, the leaves fall, and the wine is tapped.)
In Venice young boys armed with pots and lids go from one campo to another and demand qualche spicciolo (some small change) from shopkeepers. As they romp through the city, the youngsters sing a filastrocca (childhood rhyme) in veneto, the local dialect: “Viva viva San Martin Viva el nostro re del vin!” (Hooray, hooray, St. Martin! Hooray, our king of wine!). Their chant warns the locals that they are not just a few–and all are hungry. “Stè tenti a no darne poco / Perché se no stemo qua un toco!” (Make sure you give us plenty, otherwise we are going to stay here for a long time.)
If the kids receive money or treats, they sing: “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!” (We now thank you for your kindness and generosity. We’ll be back next year with our treat baskets, God willing. Hooray, hooray, St. Martin!)
If they get nothing, they sing very different — and quite colorful — verses: “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.” (May you receive as many troubles as there are nails on this door. May you get as many pimples on your butt as there are nails on your wall!) They leave with a final loud taunt: “E che ve moral el porseo!” (And may your pig die!)
The children spend the coins they’ve gathered for the traditional dolci (sweets) of St. Martin: a pastry in the shape of the saint on horseback with sword and cloak, garnished with colored icing, candies and chocolate, or sweet quince in various shapes.
Dianne Hales is the author of LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World’s Most Enchanting Language; LA PASSIONE: How Italy Seduced the World; MONA LISA: A Life Discovered; and “A” Is for Amore, which you can download for free at diannehales.com.