Armistice Day is observed on the date of the momentous ‘Armistice of Compiègne’ – the agreement by which the Allies and Germany formally concluded hostilities of the ‘The Great War’ on the 11th hour of the 11th day of November 1918. It marked a culmination of the collapse of German military might on the western and eastern fronts and a revolutionary overthrow of its domestic political order, enforcing the necessity to surrender. Rather than being a celebration of victory, where the day (and hour) is universally observed, it is in commemoration for the massed ranks of the dead, butchered in unbelievably savage conditions in Europe’s once green and beautiful fields, and among her once majestic, now shattered ancient towns and cities. The date itself is curious. The 11th of November has deep shared meaning to north Europeans for a number of reasons:
St Martin’s Day:
The 11th day of the 11th month of the Gregorian calendar is marked by a popular religious festival in the calendar of Saints of the Roman Catholic church – the Feast of St Martin of Tours, commemorating one of northern Europe’s early Christian proselytes and famous ‘military saint’. The name ‘Martin’ is, of course a reference to Mars – ancient Romes’s chthonic war-god. Christian activists often adopted a name upon receiving their new faith, or upon being inducted into a religious community, and ‘Martin’ is the name given by the late Roman-era Christian writer Sulpicus Severus for this former Roman soldier-turned-ascetic who was nominated as the first Christian bishop of Tours and credited with spread of christianity in pagan northern Gaul, Germany and Britain. His most famous legend tells of him cutting his cloak to give half to a freezing beggar who is supposedly then revealed to him as Christ personified. He is often depicted riding a horse.
The popularity of Martin’s festival (also known in English-speaking regions as Martinmas) is largely because it represented a time of first frosts, when harvests had been gathered and store-rooms were full. In other words, it was the start of winter. Popular festivities and feasting with special foods (e.g. – the traditional Martinmas goose) were/are particularly observed in catholic north Europe, and meld with some strange and distinctly pagan customs – also involving birds: In particular, an Irish custom of beheading a cockerel and dripping its blood at the corners and portals of the homestead to ensure pluck and protection for the coming year. Rather than being a devoutly religious festival, it was also a time of secular celebration with cultural an calendrical associations with another festival, perhaps more widely known to us in modern times:
Hallowe’en, All Saints Day, Samhain:
Hallowe’en or All Saint’s Day is observed on the 31st October/1st November. It appears to be based upon the old Atlantic ‘cross-quarter-day’ festival known in Irish as Samhain, at which the dead are traditionally remembered at the advent of Winter. Fires are lit and processions of young people go out in the night on exciting and wild adventures invoking the fear of death as part of its celebration. In this way, it mirrors the tamer festivities of the next most popular ‘religious’ festival, which is (of course) St Martin’s day on the 11th of November. Why should this be so?
The period between St Martin’s day and Samhain – some 12 days – corresponds to the calendrical shift between the old Julian calendar and the Gregorian calendar first instituted under the Papal curia in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII. The Julian calendar (still to this day employed by the Orthodox Christian church in Eastern Europe) was in common use in many parts of northern Europe until the late 18thC when all nations under Protestant influence finally acceded to it. As many traditional festivals were seasonal celebrations, this inevitably led to a deal of inertia in accepting the new calendar: after all, it was the calendar that had changed (to accommodate the church’s need to slow the ‘creep’ of its moveble feasts, based on old Jewish lunar calendrical reckonings – particularly Easter), and not nature. This led to the phenomenon of admixture of features between old and new festivals and thus, the 11th November became Old All-Hallows Day, or Old Samhain, if you will (Shenn Oie’l Sauin or ‘Hop Tu Naa’ to the Manx, who still observe ‘old’ festival days – particularly Old Christmas Day, when some have another feast all over again!).
The means that Armistice Day – St Martin’s Day – is in fact the Old Day of the Dead. Somewhat appropriate, don’t you think?
It is almost certain that circumstances and fate were behind the choice of this day to mark the Armistice for the war which marked the end of ‘Old Europe’ and the true advent of modernity. Curious though that the era of the Gregorian reforms marking the abandonment of the old (pagan era) calendar of Julius Caesar, and marked the start of the cultural, philosophical, technological and social transformations which ‘put the train in motion’ for its cataclysmic 20thC derailment and wreckage. World War 1 was only possible because of the centuries of warfare and accumulation of unstable power under the religiously polarised Christian elites of Europe and their equivocating financiers who played one off against another as they struggled to milk the coffers of Europe’s global Empires of the 16th-20th centuries. A whole generation lost its youth to that final slaughter, and Samhain seems an opportune time to remember them.
Britain’s ‘Bonfire Night’:
Stuck between Samhain and Martinmas is Britain’s curiously chauvinistic celebration known as ‘Guy Fawkes Night’ or just ‘Bonfire Night’ on the 5th of November. This too is a celebration of death – albeit the death of a personification of Roman Catholicism – in the figure of a man called Guy (‘Guido’) Fawkes whose effigy is burnt on great bonfires on this evening, accompanied by fireworks displays and merriment. Fawkes was a recusant Yorkshire Catholic ‘terrorist’ who was supposedly apprehended as he was about to bomb the Houses of Parliament and King James I on 5th November 1605. It appears that the traditional ‘All-Hallows’ bonfires were transferred to this date for political reasons under the Protestant ascendancy and furor of the 17th century. There is an increasing re-conflation of the two festivals, such that children begin parading the effigies of poor ‘Guy’ on All-Hallows eve – not unusually demonstrating the more typical trappings of ‘Hallowe’en’… Far from being a figure of hatred towards Catholics, though, ‘Guy’ has also evolved into something of an anti-establishment hero, whose image (as ‘sacrificial hero’) not only adorns British bonfires, but the masks of a million political activists the world over, inspired by the popular graphic novel ‘V for Vendetta’ by modern visionaries Alan Moore and David Lloyd.
The period between the 31st of October and the 11th of November seems therefore to be returning to its traditional empirical spiritual (‘ex pagis’ or ‘pagan’) meanings, and moving away from its superficially Christian adornments. It has been a process of death and pain, but then from this new things are born…
Why not celebrate Samhain again this year on the 11th of November in the company of the Host of the Dead, on Old All-Hallows Eve?