This 1863 illustration shows “Der Pelzmärte,” or “Furry Martin,” the long-haired, dirty, unkempt, switch-carrying version of St. Martin of Tours, the Catholic saint whose feast day, November 11, was viewed as the dividing line between fall and winter and the beginning of “the forty days of St. Martin,” the equivalent of Advent.

Most American Christmas fans are probably familiar with Belsnickel, the rough-hewn gift-giver of nineteenth-century Pennsylvania, and a reasonable portion of us probably know that Belsnickle is essentially a misspelling–or, one could say, an alternative spelling–of Pelznickel, the gift-giver who developed in Germany following the Protestant Reformation.  Pelznickel, in turn, means “Nicholas in Fur” or “Nicholas in Pelts,” both of which describe a secular alternative to St. Nicholas who seems to have emerged from two or three years of isolation in the Black Forest.  With his unkempt hair, his long and unkempt beard, and his filthy fur coat Pelznickel resembled dozens of other “terror men” who distributed gifts during December in Germany.  These German gift-givers, who looked like the mountain men of the American West, replaced St. Nicholas in Protestant regions after where a Catholic saint was not particularly welcome and delivered gifts on either St. Nick’s feast day, December 6, or some other day during December.   

There was another post-Reformation gift-giver in Germany, however, whose history, role, appearance, and name were remarkably similar to Pelznickel except that he was known as Pelzmartin, no Pelznickel, and appeared on St. Martin’s Day, not St. Nicholas’ Day. Today, November 11, is St. Martin’s Day, also known as the Feast of St. Martin, Martinmas, or Martinstag.  It is a date that had great significance in Catholicism, folklore, and the celebration of Christmas in Germany.  According, today’s blog will explain how St. Martin acquired a role in the Christmas season and how, despite his distinguished resume, his importance receded in the face of competition from St. Nicholas. 

Martin was probably born in 316 A.D. in Savaria, Pannonia, a region that is now part of Hungary.[1]  His father was a Tribune, a high-ranking officer in the Imperial Horse Guard of Rome, and was assigned to a post at Ticinum, in Northern Italy, where Martin was raised.  In 313 A.D., shortly before Martin’s birth, Roman Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, which legalized Christianity.  Ten years later, Christianity was declared the official religion of the Roman Empire.  According to Sulpicius Severus, Martin’s disciple and biographer, Martin was forced to join the army at the age of fifteen.  A few years later, however, Martin said he had a vision in which Christ appeared to him and urged him to study the Christian faith.  As a result, at age twenty Martin petitioned Roman emperor Julian the Apostate to be released from the army on the ground that “I am Christ’s soldier: I am not allowed to fight.”  After initially being accused of cowardice, Martin was released from the army.

Following his release, Martin traveled to Poitiers, a city south of Tours in western France, where he began studying under St. Hilary of Poitiers, Bishop of Poitiers and a “Doctor of the Church.”   When St. Hilary was expelled from his position, Martin traveled to Italy to became a missionary opposing Arianism, a heresy that denied the divinity of Christ.  In 360 A.D., Martin traveled to Ligugé, on the outskirts of Poitiers, where he founded what became the first monastery in Gaul.  In 371 A.D., Martin was named Bishop of Tours and began a campaign to destroy or convert to Christian use the existing pagan altars and temples.  He died on November 8, 397, and was buried three days later in Candes-Saint-Martin, Gaul.  His burial date, November 11, was designated St. Martin’s Day.         

By the sixth century, St. Martin’s Day had become an important holiday that marked the end of autumn and the beginning of winter, and which resembled Rome’s Saturnalia.  It was Martinmas on which winter wheat was sown, when wine made following the harvest was ready to drink, and when cattle were slaughtered because they could not be maintained over the winter.  In much of Europe, St. Martin’s Day was celebrated on what we would call St. Martin’s Eve, the evening of November 10, with feasts of roast goose, called Martinsgans, Martinmas beef, and wine from the fall harvest.  The celebrations also featured the lighting of huge bonfires called Martinsfeuer, and there was often a lantern procession where children carry lanterns and singing. 

The similarities between the celebrations of Martinmas and Saturnalia, and between the roles of St. Martin and St. Nicholas don’t stop at the nature of the feasting, drinking, and partying.  Equally important is the timing of the observances in relationship to Advent, the holiday which marks the period of spiritual preparation prior to Christmas and, thus, functions as the spiritual beginning of the Christmas season.   In the Eastern Orthodox Church, which includes Greece and most of the nations to its east, Advent is the first Sunday following St. Martin’s Day.  In the Western Church, better known as the Roman Catholic Church, Advent is the Sunday closest to the Feast of St. Andrews (November 30). 

The role of St. Martin on Martinmas was also similar to the role of St. Nicholas on St. Nicholas’ Day.  Before the Reformation men representing both St. Nicholas and St. Martin appearing at their feast days wearing traditional bishop’s robes.  On November 11, a man dressed as St. Martin would ride a horse leading a parade of children carrying paper lanterns and singing songs while on December 6 a man dressed as St. Nicholas would distribute sweets or small gifts to children.  Following the Reformation, however, the use of a Catholic saint was discouraged in the Protestants regions of Europe.  As a result, the Protestants adopted gift-givers following the Reformation who represented Saints Martin and Nicholas but were not actually saints. 

The most common way to represent the saints as holiday figures while avoiding the implication of Catholicism was to dispense with the traditional bishop’s robes and to attire the figures in long, dark hair and beards, fur hats, long, torn, fur coats, and a handful of switches.   For St. Nicholas, the outcome was “Pelznickel,” or “Furry Nicholas” and for St. Martin, the outcome was “Pelzmartin,” or “Furry Martin.”   Pelznickel prospered as the post-Reformation version of St. Nicholas in Germany and traveled with German immigrants to the United States in the early nineteenth century.  The immigrants settled primarily in Pennsylvania where Pelznickel become known as Belsnickle.  While St. Martin is still the subject of Martinmas celebrations throughout Europe, Pelzmartin does not have the presence he once had. 

Tom A. Jerman

[1]              Some sources say that Martin was born in 336 A.D., but the story of his conversion at age ten does not make as much sense if Christianity had already been declared the official religion of the Roman Empire.  Except for purposes of accuracy, it does not matter.