The bishop and the goose

As days grow short and dark and the shops start filling with Christmas decorations, you may find yourself facing an abundance of frozen ducks and geese in Danish supermarket. Here is the explanation.

Every year on November 10th, Danes celebrate Mortens Aften – or Morten’s Eve in commemoration of Saint Martin of Tours. This is done having duck or goose for dinner.

And why goose or duck? Well …

The unwilling bishop and the noisy geese

Roast duck / (C)Zyance for WikiCommons

As the story goes – and it is a good one – Saint Martin was a good and pious munk. He lived in France in the 4th century AD. He was so popular that the people of Tours elected him as their new bishop in 371 AD.

Martin, however, was not interested. He wanted to live a quiet convent life. When the people of Tours came to collect their new bishop, Martin hid among a flock of geese. The geese, however, made so much noise that Martin was discovered and off he was dragged to become bishop.

The bishop gets his revenge

To punish the geese the new bishop decreed that every year the people of Tours should celebrate by eating roast goose for dinner on the day of his appointment to bishop.

The truth behind the legend

The historic facts seem to tell a different story. Bishop Martin become a popular bishop of his own free will. He died in 397 AD and was buried on November 11th. After his canonization years later this date became his saint-day.

When the people of Denmark began celebrating Saint Martin by eating roast goose is unclear. It is believed that the tradition stems from the Middle Ages.

(C) Pixabay/open source

In 1616 a Danish bookbinder printed a small book about the popular tradition of eating “Morten’s goose” for dinner on November 10th. The bookbinder explains that the Danes remember the good deeds of the old saint by indulging in a feast of goose or duck.

Goose for the well-off and duck for the common folk.

From Martin to Morten

But why the namechange? In 1536 Denmark became a protestant country. By 1616 the veneration of saints was therefore more or less in the past. The celebration of a roman catholic saint by the name of Saint Martin of Tours could therefore not be allowed. But honouring a pious bishop – that they could do. Especially if he bore the very Danish name “Morten”.

“Saint Martin of Tours” became “Morten Bishop”. And the Danes could continue to commemorate the story of how loudly honking geese revealed the hiding place of the reluctant bishop of Tours.

Why the Danes insist on celebrating their holidays “on the eve of” is another story for another time.

For other stories about what Danes eat at speciale times of the year, you may also like: The Wheat-rolls and the Day of Prayer: