November 11: The celebration of San Martin Caballero
In a ravine near the town of El Terrero there is a grotto in which an image is venerated. It is said to be of Saint Martin de Tours, or as they call him here, San Martin Caballero—St Martin the rider. Believers claim that the image was not done by people, it was created naturally and miraculously.
Saint Martin of Tours was born in 316, in what is today Hungary, and his feast day is on November 11. Of pagan origin, Martin became a Christian as a young man. Because he was the son of a veteran officer, he was forced to join the cavalry and served for two years. He petitioned the Roman emperor to be released from the army because “I am Christ’s soldier: I am not allowed to fight.” For this, he was imprisoned, but released shortly.
While in the Roman army he had an experience, which became the most-repeated story about his life. One day as he was approaching the gates of a French city, he met a scantily clad beggar. He impulsively cut his military cloak and handed it to the beggar. During the night he dreamt of Jesus wearing that garb, and in the morning he found his cloak restored to wholeness. The cloak became a relic preserved by the kings, carried into battle, and used to swear oaths upon. The priest who cared for the cloak in its reliquary was called a cappellanu, the plural being cappellani. The French translation of the Latin word is chapelains, from which the English word chaplain is derived. Also, the small temporary churches built for the relic were called “capella," little cloak. Eventually, all small churches began to be referred to as "chapels."
After leaving military life, Martin became a monk, and eventually a bishop. He served in a French monastic complex from which apostles spread Christianity. During his lifetime, he acquired a reputation as a miracle worker, and he was one of the first non-martyrs to be publicly venerated as a saint. Martin died in France on November 8, 397 and was buried outside the town of Tours. He is the patron saint of horses, and of beggars, because of the story about sharing his cloak. There are many paintings showing this event.
Saint Martin has a connection to Guanajuato. There is a story that a group of Indians were traveling on their way to San Miguel el Grande to participate in a fair in the latter part of the 1700s. They carried all kinds of goods that they would be selling—jars, pots, and other items. As they were walking through a ravine at nightfall, a torrent came down and swallowed up three of them.
The unfortunate ones were crying out for help, but their companions could not rescue them. Suddenly a horseman appeared and jumped into the waters on horseback. He saved the men who were being swallowed up by the waters and deposited them at the feet of their companions. When they were all safe and sound, they turned to look for the horseman to thank him, but he had disappeared.
Since it was late, the Indians decided to spend the night in a nearby cave. In the morning, when the light of day peaked in, they were shocked to see the image of a horseman on the wall of the cave—a likeness of the one who had been their savior the previous night. They continued on their journey, and in San Miguel el Grande they approached the priest to let him know of the events. He wanted to see the image. So they took him to the cave, with a lot of people following behind, and they were all impressed by the image they saw.
Ever since then, there is a major celebration of St Martin in the town of Terrero, outside San Miguel de Allende. Thousands of horsemen—old and young men, women, and children, come from four cardinal points, descending on the town over a period of a week or more. They camp out on their way, and once there. Then they attend mass on horseback, venerating St. Martin de Tours, whom they call San Martin Caballero—Saint Martin the horseman.
Just this week, on our way to Queretaro we saw hundreds of horseman heading in the direction of San Miguel. As we drove on, we saw more and more of them. It was only a day later that I found out what this was about, and that when you count all the riders that come from everywhere, there are as many as 7,000 congregating in the little town of Terrero.
A view of the horsemen on their way to Terrero