St Martin’s Bag

On 11 November the Church celebrates the feast of St Martin of Tours. This saint was born of pagan parents, but he was inclined towards the Roman Catholic faith from a young age. He followed and practised the monastic and eremitic ideal for many years before he was chosen as bishop of Tours, France, in the year 371. During his episcopate, he built various monasteries and he died during a visit to one of the dioceses with the hope of bringing unity to this diocese. The cult of St Martin is very popular in the Roman Catholic world, and was one of the first people to be revered as saints even though he didn’t suffer any martyrdom.

Undoubtedly, one of the famous traditions associated with this Saint is the bag of St Martin (il-borża ta’ San Martin). Traditionally, it used to be a bag filled with different types fruit and a small sweet bun—nowadays sweets are included in it as well, to make it more inviting for children.

The origin of this tradition, which is still very strong amongst us even today, are quite interesting. Although popularly associated with acts of charity that St Martin is known for—like the legend of the mantel that St Martin teared to share with a poor man, who later is revealed to be Jesus himself—the origins of this the borża ta’ San Martin are rooted in liturgy.

Besides the celebration of baptism during the Easter Vigil, some were baptised on 6 January when the Church commemorated the Baptism of the Lord before establishing that day specifically as the feast of the visit of the Magi. Even today, the liturgy of the Epiphany includes also the Baptism of the Lord together with the miracle during the marriage in Cana, as part of the celebration of the mystery of God who showed himself in the person of Jesus Christ.

Consequently, just as forty days of fasting were observed in preparation for Baptism—which eventually developed in the liturgical season of Lent—likewise, even before the celebration of the feast of the Epiphany a forty days period of fasting was observed. Eventually, particularly in the Gallican Church (of France), this fast was associated with Christmas, thus starting the day following the feast of St Martin. The borża ta’ San Martin functioned in the same way as sweets during Carnival, just before lent starts. This observance gradually led paved the way for the Church to establish the period of Advent—a time which didn’t maintain its penitential character, yet its aim of opening our hearts in preparation for the coming of the Lord remains.