house of happy

Life adventures in prose and verse. Explorations of places, people and words. Stories and fun.

Sunday, 30 November 2008

O Verrao do Sao Martinho

Summer came back sometime in the second week of November. We woke up to skies of uninterrupted blue, and shed our sweaters in the mid afternoon sun. Birds went mad, swirling and singing under the now naked trees. We left the mulled wine and made lemonade.

This, I was told again and again, with great smiles and knowing nods, is the 'summer of Sao Martinho'. Why and who - I then asked, again and again - was Sao Martinho? One of our saints, silly! people laughed. The more patient took a moment to explain that the saint's day (11 November) is always followed by eight days of sun. Yes, but why? Why eight, why sun and why Martin? Being a bore and a nuisance is a price I'm willing to pay for a good story.

No good. Reactions varied from a) shrugs and vacant looks, followed by sudden preoccupation with finding a suitable chestnut to shell, b) casting about for someone who might know, to c) giving an elaborate but completely irellevant answer. For example, I was told that “people eat chestnuts and drink red wine for Sao Martinho” or to “come to our village gathering at the cafe – there's drumming and free drinks” and even that “you can get chestnut trees in the market... plant them in a sunny spot, give them ten years and you can harvest up to eighty kilos from one tree...”.

Village custom and agricultural advice were just not enough. This time I longed for legend, a little pinch of hagiography perhaps? In the absence of a lucid centenarian with a good grasp of local religious trivia, I'm worried to admit it, I searched the Internet.

A site devoted to the lives of Catholic saints provided a clue... (it also shed light on the life of St. Monica, a martyr simply for having endured her pagan husband's atrocious temper and her children's stubbornness (what's ever new?); in the end she converted them all, including an “equally difficult” mother-in-law!!... I also looked up St. Magnus, of which there are seven; the records that justify their saintliness are – sadly? suspiciously? - long lost..)

Enough digressions. Back to the good Sao Martinho. A Portuguese website describes him as “the winter saint who brings back summer”. Intriguing, promising, too brief. Catholic Online has details. Martin was a Roman officer serving in a cavalry unit that protected the Emperor. On one particularly vile November day, during garrison duty, he surrendered to a strange impulse: to everyone's surprise, including his own, he tore up his fine mantle and gave half to a naked beggar.

His macho comrades cackled and sniggered, startling the horses with malicious mirth. Martin clung grimly to his own saddle, no doubt contemplating a lifetime of bullying brought about by his own misguided mantle-sharing moment. But wait: all of a sudden the sleet and bruising wind stopped. The sun shone, lone birds thawed, ruffled their feathers and sang. The general jeering gurgled down and died. Our beggar blinked and the small warm tear on his cheek held a whole rainbow.

What does one do after something like this? Remain a soldier, it seems, but change armies. Before the lambswool-lined half-mantle had stroked the beggar's back, Martin was already enrolled in the vast army of Christ. After a long, hard, humble life, this new path ultimately led him to the laurels and loneliness of saints.

What remains: when each year slumps into winter, Sao Martinho brings eight days of sun and clear skies (this year we had twelve!) Here in North Portugal, the day of Sao Martinho is a particularly happy landmark: it is, by tradition, when you get a first taste of the new wine. Chestnuts are roasted on roaring open fires, faces painted with coal, the wine flows and the drums beat late into the night. It is the last big party before Christmas.

What is lost? In my view, a fine mantle. Why did Martin have to tear it up? Why not give the whole thing away? His gesture is somewhat diluted, his lesson confusing. Is it about sharing or thrashing the cloak? Generosity or wastefulness?

Tragically, something else is also wasting away. The story of Sao Martinho has slowly faded from collective memory. It's OK, that happens. But worse, no one seemed to even wonder for a minute why they did these same things year after year, why they counted eight days of sunshine in November, why they celebrated this unlikely winter saint with their new wine, their loudest drums and their most playful rhymes.

When, how do people lose their inquisitiveness? This, for me, is up there with the loss of the Amazonian rainforest. Sao Martinho is only a small symptom, but what else are we forgetting? How, once forgotten, can we get it back? (Please don't say The Internet. Or if you think it's funny, go on, say it, do. I don't care.)

I'm off to tell the village how Sao Martinho brings the sun back every winter. They haven't been too curious, I know, but I'm sure they'll be thrilled... I think I'll also ask some more questions. My little gift to humankind.


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