Before moving to Hungary, I thought I was pretty well-versed in my Catholic feast days. I knew enough to be a tad peeved when the Holy See decided to allow Bishops to move most Holy Days of Obligation (those days other than Sunday on which Catholics are obliged to go to mass) to the nearest Sunday. They said it was to accommodate our increasingly busy lifestyles. I’m still struggling to get my head around Ascension Thursday being on Sunday.
In the past few years, 11 November has become one of my new favourite feast days – that of St Martin or Márton nap as it’s known in Hungary. Of course, it’s not exclusive to Hungary but I’m quite taken with how it’s celebrated here. The idea of having to eat goose at 11.11 a.m. on 11 November to avoid going hungry for a year is one I can live with. What I hadn’t realised though, is that it’s also a day for tasting new wines – those just opened after the grape harvest. What a perfect pairing.
What I also hadn’t realised is that St Martin, the son of a Roman tribune, was born centuries ago in Savaria, which is near Szombathely, Hungary (famous in my mind for being the birthplace of Leopold Bloom’s father in James Joyce’s Ulysses). Anyway, as the story goes, one night when Martin was soldiering for the Roman emperor in France, he saw a homeless guy and offered him half his cloak to keep warm. That night, in his dreams, Jesus appeared to him dressed in his cloak, thus sealing Martin’s faith and future. He left the army and turned instead to serve God. His good deeds earned him a reputation for compassion towards the poor. As his popularity grew, the powers that be decided to make him Bishop of Tours. Now, Martin wasn’t at all keen on the idea so hid in a barn full of geese when they came to collect him. But the traitorous geese gave him up which is why we eat them. And in 371 AD, Martin became Bishop of Tours.
There are lots of stories doing the rounds about geese on Márton nap. Geese once saved Rome from attack and were known to Romans as the sacred bird of Mars – and it’s not a goose step from that to Martin’s bird. Or, perhaps a more sensible explanation is that it falls at the end of the harvest season when workers received their annual wages (imagine that!) plus a goose (as a bonus).
His goose connection having been safely established, St Martin as the appointed ‘judge of new wine’ is a later belief, and perhaps has more to do with timing than taste buds. Still, to his credit, the man has been busy and is now considered Patron Saint of France, horses, riders, soldiers, geese, and vintners.
Goose is a year-round staple on the Hungarian menu and my particular favourite place to eat it is a little restaurant called Huszár Étterem up near Második János Pál pápa tér. I go there reasonably often and the only time I don’t have the goose leg is when they’re out of it. And then I pout.
I’m a creature of cravings and when I crave goose, I want roasted goose leg with steamed red cabbage and roast potatoes. There are even days when goose crackling wins over chocolate.
But perhaps this year, we should look to Martin’s selflessness in sharing his cloak with a beggar. As well as thinking about how to avoid going hungry ourselves, we could think about sharing what we have with those who don’t have as much. Winter is coming and for many, life on the streets is about to get a lot worse. Just a thought.
First published in the Budapest Times 6 November 2015