Today is Veterans’ Day, instituted first as Armistice Day after WWI, then Veterans’ Day after WWII (although my mother occasionally still called it Armistice Day) as a tribute to veterans of both world wars. It’s also the Feast of Martinmas, which is less well known in this country, although having been raised Catholic I grew up familar with the story of Saint Martin of Tours. It seems somehow fitting that Veterans Day is celebrated on the festival of a former Roman soldier.
Martin was born in the 4th century in what later became Hungary but what was then Pannonia, a province of the Roman Empire. His father, an important officer in the Roman army, naturally expected his son to follow in his footsteps (Martin had been named for Mars, the god of war, presumably to encourage that military spirit). But apparently young Martin was an easy-going, sociable fellow, more curious about strangers (and generous with handouts) than aggressive toward them, so to get him into the army his father arranged for his kidnapping and forcible enlistment by his soldiers, hoping that Martin would grow accustomed to military life through daily exposure. I bet Dad didn’t get many loving letters from the front. Today this method of recruitment is frowned upon.
However, there was Martin, a soldier at last, obliged to serve the Emperor for three years, outfitted with a Roman uniform and a sword. Even in the army, Martin was open-handed, and his military salary usually found its way into the hands of the unfortunate. His unit was sent to Gaul, as part of an ongoing attempt to civilize the native barbarians. Civilization in Gaul was eventually attained at a level far beyond their wildest dreams, but that’s another story.
One winter day, the story goes, Martin arrived at the gates of Amiens, where he encountered a poor ragged beggar shivering by the side of the road. Martin had already given away all his extra clothing, but, taking pity on the beggar, Martin unsheathed his sword and cut his warm woolen (army-issue, uh-oh) cloak in half and wrapped one half around him.
That night, Martin dreamed that Jesus appeared to him wrapped in Martin’s half-cloak saying, “Martin has covered me with this garment.” This made him determined to leave the army permanently, at the end of his term. When he attempted it, however (inconveniently during a barbarian invasion), he was accused of cowardice, in response to which he offered to advance alone against the enemy. Instead he was imprisoned. Eventually he was released at the conclusion of an armistice, and was finally able to pursue his vocation, settling in Gaul, founding an order, living very simply and developing a reputation for feeding the hungry and healing the sick.
Over the years our homeschooling group has celebrated Martinmas (sometimes in combination with Diwali, Festival of Light, which can occur at around the same time—this year it falls on the 12th) with storytelling, a night-time walk in the park carrying lanterns and singing songs about light, and afterward gathering to share dessert. Happy Martinmas! Happy Diwali! Happy Veterans Day, everyone!