Estonia celebrates mardipäev or St. Martin's Day

Children in Estonia dressed up as traditional Marts on Martinmas Eve. November 9, 2022.
Children in Estonia dressed up as traditional Marts on Martinmas Eve. November 9, 2022. Source: Mari-Liis Pintson

Mardipäev, Martinmas or St. Martin's Day is an Estonian folk calendar holiday held on November 10. The most common tradition includes dressing up as often scary or slightly monstrous beggars and showing up on people's doorsteps singing, dancing, and often playfully flogging the host.

Mall Hiiemäe, a scholar of the Estonian folk calendar, has considered mardipäev to be an ancient new year's holiday. All agricultural work had to be completed by mardipäev which has also been associated with remembering the dead, possibly because in Estonian folklore the death fairy is known as a mardus.

However, the holiday also coincides with St. Martin's Day which is celebrated in other countries. Mardipäev signaled the end of work outside the house and the start of indoor tasks. The earlier mardipäev tradition did not include beggary and Martinmas beggars or mardisandid (traditionally young men dressed up in dark coats that had been turned inside out, wearing animal masks, false beards etc. going from door to door) but rather showed up to bless the household, its endeavors and inhabitants for the coming year.

The mardipäev ritual had a rather rigid structure and included singing specific runic verse songs. After knocking on the door and being let in, mardisandid blessed the household by scattering grains on the floor before proceeding to test the inhabitants' skills at handicrafts, riddles, and games. The mardi-isa or the head of the metaphorical mardipere then gently flogged members of the hosting family, whisking everyone good health.

Next gifts were requested from the family, such as money, food and drink, sweets etc. after which the guests once again blessed the household. The mardisandid often proceeded to have a party with the bounty they had collected after visiting several households. If a household refused to let the mardisandid come in, they sang a curse song outside the door and could get up to various kinds of mischief.

Children dressed up to celebrate Mardipäev on November 10. Source: Ines Asman

Mardipäev was traditionally a male-centered holiday dedicated to agricultural good fortune, while its counterpart for women and having more to do with animal husbandry was kadripäev, which is celebrated a few weeks later on November 25.

The traditional mardipäev food was a roast goose, even though only wealthier families could afford it in the 19th century. Other food-related mardipäev traditions included a cooked pig's head, baking barley bread, eating cabbage and sausages.

In Western Estonia and the Western Estonian Islands, it was customary for less fortunate women to go around on mardipäev collecting food and items of clothing.

Mardisandid started to include women from the 19th century and the tradition increasingly became one of entertainment for the young rather than an age-old fertility rite. In the early 20th century, the costumes of mardisandid became more varied and started to include dressing up as sailors, chimneysweeps and the like, Mardisandid have predominantly been children starting in the second half of the previous century. Mardipäev is also sometimes referred to as the Estonian or old-time Halloween as its origins can also be traced back to Allhallowtide, which starts on October 31.

Kaja kallas giving gifts to the Mardisandid on November 9, 2023. Source: Stenbocki maja


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Editor: Marcus Turovski, Helen Wright

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