Yes, it's a real holiday, and until relatively recently it was pretty widely celebrated in many parts of Europe. Before I go to much father, I should point out that I'm not Catholic, nor do I belong to any form of religious practice that venerates saints, so if I get some of these details wrong, you can forgive me.
Martin of Tours is usually recognized as the first "non-martyr" Saint. He was born in Turkey to a tribune in the Imperial Horse Guard of the Roman Army, and later on in life Martin himself was required to join a heavy cavalry unit and was stationed in France.
Legends say that at one point during his career he came across a near-naked beggar in the snow. Martin took his sword and cut his cloak in half and gave half of it to the beggar (as depicted in the accompanying image). Later that night, he had a vision that the beggar was actually Jesus in disguise, and afterwards Martin left the army and dedicated his life to the Church, eventually becoming the Bishop of Tours.
There are tons of other legends about Martin, like how children in Europe used to think that Martin hailed the coming of Winter since his Feast Day fall on an ancient "cross-quarter" day. They would put their shoes outside and during the night, Martin would ride by on his horse and fill the shoes with little horse-shoe shaped cookies. Parents put cups of water outside on the eve of his feast day because Martin fills the cups with wine instead (since he is the Patron Saint of Vintners). I could go on and on, but you can get more information by looking online at places like the Calendar of Saints Days or good old Wikipedia.
I still like to try to celebrate Martinmas every year with a dinner for friends and family when I can, and I at the very least have a glass of wine to honor on of the Patron Saints of Wine.
So, you're asking, what does all of this have to do with gaming or geek stuff, Martin? Well, it got me thinking a long time ago when I found out that there was such a thing as a St. Martin's Day just how widely varied and fascinating our own modern-day religions are, and how much of a missed opportunity I think it is in role-playing games.
In my World of Samoth campaign, I have a monotheistic religion called Ætonism. To take the place of the "missing gods", if you will, I created 16 Hallowed Patrons (one for each month of the year plus one for each quarterly festival) and any cleric of the religion is required to choose a Hallowed Patron as his sect. Each sect has its own teachings, religious customs, color schemes, etc. Basically - it's like having sixteen "mini-religions." The idea was to make my monotheistic religion a little more varied in scope. I had always intended to have each player in the campaign pick one of the Hallowed Patrons as their "god" and follow the practices, and thought it might be interesting if some of them belonged to different sects of the same church.
As it turned out... it seems like people in my group just don't care about religion in their role-playing games.
We had only one cleric player, who was a multi-class sorcerer (this was/is a 3rd Edition/Pathfinder game). He chose a scholarly-based Hallowed Patron because it fit his character background, which was cool, but that's about where it stopped. As with typical role-playing games, the characters were going around town slaughtering bad guys as they needed to, and it never occurred to the cleric player that he might want to pray over the bodies of the fallen and perhaps give them the proper burial rights. I nudged him a bit in that direction and he finally came around, but it usually consists of "My guy says a prayer over the body. You know, whatever I'm supposed to do."
It's like playing up the religious aspects is more of a nuisance than part of the character's background.
For the other players, religion is pretty much a non-issue. From the start, nearly everyone, with the exception of one player (Malinda, who was a newbie), chose the route of saying, "My character doesn't follow that religion. He doesn't believe in organized religion." I tried a bit to discourage this type of modern thinking (can you imagine a peasant in 13th Century England saying, "I don't believe in organized religion"?), but I was trying to be very conscious of not forcing someone to play a character they don't want to play.
So, to this day, over 10 years later, the cleric player is still with us, but he is the only one following one of the religions I created for my campaign.
While the spiritual aspect of religion has been downplayed, we have played up its political aspects quite a bit, and that itself has been the source of many of the more interesting and memorable sessions during my campaign. But, I'll save that for another post.
How do you all use religion in your games? Does it end up being window-dressing only, like in my campaign? (Actually, I don't even think you can call it window-dressing in my campaign - it's that unimportant to the players). Or does it take a central role?