With fieldwork done, it’s time for Mārtiņi

“Laid iekšā, saiminiece, man kājiņas nosalušas!” (Let me in—my feet are freezing!). Thus begins another winter and another mummers’ season in the traditional Latvian year, with banging on the door, masked people demanding to come in and be fed, loud singing and dancing. This festival, called Mārtiņi, marks the beginning of winter and occurs halfway between the fall equinox and the winter solstice on Nov. 10.

Mārtiņi is the end of the harvest season. The field work has come to an end by now. The end of threshing is celebrated at Mārtiņi. Horses and cattle are brought in to spend the winter in the barns. It is a time for gathering and preparing food and getting ready for winter, as well as being thankful for a good harvest.

The namesake of the festival, Mārtiņš, is a lesser deity or mythical character associated with the waning of the sun, as well as with war. With the farm work done and the ground and rivers frozen, in years gone by fall was usually the time that raids and wars began. Mārtiņš and the spring character Ūsiņš (celebrated at the opposite end of the year on May 10) have several similarities: they both care for horses, both are associated with sacrifices of roosters, and they symbolize the waning (Mārtiņš) and waxing (Ūsiņš) of the sun.

The hallmark of the Mārtiņi celebration is the costumes and masks, the "mummers." In the evening people dress up so that no one can recognize them. They then go from house to house, where they are greeted with cheers, songs, food and drink. Much singing, dancing, joking and—sometimes—even scaring of children follows. Some mummer groups even prepare a short humorous skit. The mummers, usually called budēļi, čigāni or ķekatas, demand food and drink. The better the fare offered, the better the hosts’ harvest will be next year. The mummers comment on the cleanliness of the house, and sometimes steal a small object or two in jest. They dance around the whole farmyard, bringing blessings and fertility to the animals, buildings, fields and gardens. Then the bunch goes on to the next farmstead, where the whole scene is repeated.

Sounds kind of like Halloween? Of course it does, because many cultures have similar traditions in the fall. Latvians traditionally continued these masked visits all winter long until the Meteņi celebration in early February. Although outside of Latvia we associate the costumed revelers almost exclusively with the beginning of their season at Mārtiņi, most of their activity actually occured around the winter solstice (Ziemassvētki).

The budēļi are said to bring good fortune. They tend to disguise themselves as familiar objects, people and animals, not the supernatural or gory characters so often seen at Halloween parties. Common Latvian costumes include the tall lady, the short man, a gypsy, a bear-tamer and bear, a goat, a wolf, a heron, a rabbit, a tree or a mushroom. The main thing is that no one recognizes you!

Because Mārtiņi occurs after the harvest, it is a wealthy festival with lots of good food. Mārtiņi also is slaughter time, so there is usually a variety of meats at the festival meal. The best known delicacy is rooster. Traditionally, a black rooster was killed to ensure the well-being of the horses (“Mārtiņam gaili kāvu deviņiem cekuliem; Tas baroja, tas sukāja manus bērus kumeliņus”). Pork, pīrāgi, root vegetables, cabbage, bread, apples, cranberries, grey peas, beer and sweetbreads are some of the other foods offered.

Of course, every Latvian region and family develops its own traditions, even outside of Latvia. In central Wisconsin, for example, small groups of budēļi come from all over the state, as well as from neighboring states, and meet at a rural farmstead. Then, after singing, dancing, games and a big meal, the mummers and the homeowners settle in for the night and tell ghost stories. The next morning they finish off the feasting with a pancake breakfast.

Mārtiņi also is often a common theme at fall Latvian school parties. Mārtiņi is a short festival—just one day long—but it is a joyful introduction to the long winter season.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *