Today is the feast day of Martin of Tours. Martin was a Roman soldier who gave part of his cloak to a naked homeless man. According to some, he gave the rest of his clothes to another naked man and rode Lady Godiva-style through the late autumn winds. God miraculously warmed the earth for him, which is why it gets warm after being cold this time of year (known by a few as "St. Martin's Summer"). That night, Martin dreamed that Jesus came to him, scantily clad in the portion of his cloak which he'd given to the naked guy. When Martin awoke from his homo-erotic dream, he decided to devote himself to Christ and was baptized at 18.
Eventually he became a bishop in Tours. He didn't want to be a bishop so he hid in a goose pen. The geese betrayed him with honking and that is why we traditionally eat goose today, a sort of revenge best served fairly hot.
In Tours he gained a reputation for his iconoclastic violence, destroying the polytheistic art objects and ancient, historic temples of the indigenous Druidic religion like some medieval representative of the Taliban. He even went a little nuts and cut down trees, to the locals' dismay. On one occasion, a druid consented that he could cut down the tree if he stood where it was likely to fall. He did so and, of course, the tree fell in another direction. The druids were impressed.
He didn't stop there. He was able to stop fire, cast out demons and even resurrect the dead. Threads of the sackcloth he wore were used to heal the sick. He also introduced the Chenin Blanc varietal and, although he only believed in drinking wine when sick, is widely associated with viticulture.
Martin himself lived a fairly ascetic existence, as recommended by Jesus. Wearing clothing made of camel hair and living in a cave, he became strangely popular by the middle ages. The practice of "Quadragesima Sancti Martini," or, "the forty days of St. Martin" were marked by overindulgence on the eve of his feast day followed by 40 days of fasting.
Today, Flemish and Germanic children parade through the streets with lanterns made of paper... or beets. They're led by a horseman dressed as St. Martin whom the kids sing songs about. In Malta children are given bags of various nuts, citrus fruits and pomegranates which symbolize things that I don't feel like getting into.
In Portugal people gather to eat roasted chestnuts and drink aguapé and jeropiga. Some children are given presents today, sitting out St. Nicholas Day and Christmas. For Baltic people, Martinmas is a day to honor the dead, and the first day of winter. People stopped working in the fields, going to work instead in the home (if women) and the forests (if men). In Balkan countries, priests bless the grape before it becomes wine. They eat Mlinci, a dish made of bread that's been fried in bird fat. In Poland they eat croissants and set off fireworks. In Spain they slaughter pigs which has given rise to the saying "A cada cerdo le llega su San Martín," which would sound really cool if you said it right before offing some bad guy on November 11.
In Denmark, where they hate Germans, the holiday is known as Mortens aften because Martin sounds so German (e.g. Martin Luther). One of the two Danish guys I know is named Morten. Today, Danes eat duck because Goose is too expensive. This doesn't really seem fair to the duck, who had nothing to do with Martin's being forced into the church.
In the olden days, men went door-to-door, dancing and singing and crossing-dressing, a tradition echoed by the characters Shenehneh Jenkins, Edna Payne from the '90s television series... Martin! Another interesting connection is that there is a country, St. Martin, which is mostly known for its bars and nude beaches. Things that make you go "hmm."