Turning Year: Martinmas traditions

Bewick's swans are back.
Bewick's swans are back.

As afternoons darken and trees become bare, the northern swans arrive – Bewick’s from Siberia, and whoopers from Iceland.

Both have yellow beaks marked with black, unlike our resident mute swans that have an orange beak. Small groups of these visitors can turn up anywhere, so be sure to study your local swans for any yellow beaks.

Another visitor from the far north will be arriving in Scarborough this Saturday morning. Easily recognisable in his familiar red-and-white, Santa will make his way from the harbour to his grotto in Boyes store. Soon, Santas will be popping up everywhere.

Yes, only six weeks to go. All the same, it’s a wee bit early for festive music. Not around Sheffield though. There they’ll be carolling this Thursday, packed into the Black Bull in Ecclesfield for the season’s first “sing”.

Village carols are different. Some are local compositions handed down through 200 years. Others are old favourites, left out from the Church of England’s chosen repertoire in the nineteenth century.

Many village carols have a call-and-answer repetition known as “fuguing”, where the bass line echoes the melody. One of these tunes was borrowed for On Ilkley Moor b’aht ‘at. It’s still sung around Sheffield with its original words, While Shepherds Watched. Try it – While Shepherds fits the tune perfectly.

Blood month

November days are wild and soggy, or gloomy and misty. Yet after the 11th there’s often a fine spell, known as St Martin’s little summer.

According to legend those fine days were divine recognition for the saint, who once cut his warm cloak in two so he could give half to a beggar.

Martin was a converted soldier who became Bishop of Tours in 371. His feast day on November 11 was the Roman Vinalia, devoted to the wine god, Bacchus. So, with the odd logic of sainthood, Martin became the patron saint of innkeepers.

On St Martin’s Day rents were settled, land payments made and hiring fairs held. Farm workers in tied cottages called it Pack-rag Day, because at the end of their hiring agreements they bundled up their belongings to move on. If things had gone well with their old employer, he might treat them to a Martinmas feast before they left.

Farm animals that weren’t needed for breeding used to be killed and butchered in November. This was the way for centuries until root crops were developed that could be fed to livestock, allowing more animals to be kept through winter. The process was mostly finished by the 11th, when any meat that couldn’t be smoked, salted or made into sausages had to be eaten.

Martinmas, with its food, drink and jollity, was celebrated in country parishes until the Great War. But the terrible losses of the war years ended all that. When the Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918, the day took on another meaning.

Finally, something to lift the spirits. Every November our planet passes through debris left by the comet Temple-Tuttle, producing a stream of meteors called the Leonids. Peaks are expected at 9pm on the17th and 4am on the 18th. To see even one fiery trail is a thrill, so get out there and gaze towards the northeast.