A Red-Letter Day

April 25th is a complicated date. It is St Mark’s Day, which is honored with a wide variety of celebrations; and it is Robigalia, an ancient Roman festival intended to propitiate the god — or demon — of wheat rust and thus ensure a good harvest. These disparate themes may actually be related. 

Mark the Evangelist, miniature from the Grandes Heures of Anne of Brittany, Queen consort of France (1477-1514) (The furry being is supposed to be Mark’s lion…)

Mark the Evangelist, the writer of one of the narratives of the life of Christ, is an important early Church figure. Of course he wrote the book, but he also founded the church in Alexandria which is the ancestor of the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Greek Orthodox Church and the Coptic Catholic Church, all major branches of Christianity. 

However, the thrust of ritual activity on 25 April is difficult to tie to Mark, or indeed to Christianity. In Lithuania, it is a festival that opens the grain-growing season. There is a ban on eating meat and on touching earth. No digging or plowing on this date, as that is seen as disrespectful of the hard work the earth will be doing in bringing forth the harvest. More recently, Italy grafted on a celebration of liberation to this date. The country was officially rid of Nazi-Fascists on 25 April 1945. Today, this date is a national holiday. In Mexico, St Mark’s day gives its name to a month-long fair that has international appeal, the Saint Mark National Fair. In Sardinia, this is a shepherd’s holiday in which bread is offered as a sacrifice and there is a good deal of drinking.

In Venice, which takes Mark as its patron saint, this is the Rosebud Festival. Men give a single red rosebud to the woman they love. This tradition can be traced back to the wars of the 8th century. A commoner fell hopelessly in love with a woman from the nobility. He went off to war and was mortally wounded, but before dying he managed to pluck a budding rose and send it with a companion back to his love. The rose was covered in his blood. 


This strange tale actually comes fairly close to the day’s Roman roots, at least symbolically. Robigalia was a festival of propitiation in which the color red is paramount. There was a bloody sacrifice of a red-furred, unweaned puppy. The name of the festival is tied to the Latin ruber, meaning red. And the deity invoked, Robigus (though sometimes in feminine, Robigo) is likely a variation of Mars, the god of both agriculture and war, a bloody deity.

Wheat rust

The color literally ‘stems’ from the blight that Robigus both caused and therefore prevented — if in the right mood. It is wheat leaf rust, a nasty fungus that can overwinter in mild climates and destroy large swaths of an infected field. It can kill not only wheat, but oats, rye and many other grasses, reducing yields to a pittance where it sets in. It is endemic throughout the world and there is no cure once it takes hold. This wee beastie has the particularly foul habit of using the dying plant tissues to fertilize itself; so it eats the plant, kills it and then propagates itself in the plant’s decomposition. Fortunately, there are hybrids that are resistant to this menace, but the main defense these days is genetic engineering.

It is likely that climate change will exacerbate the spread of this fungus and other grain rusts since the cold temperatures needed to kill them may no longer happen in many parts of the world. Perhaps it is time to pray to Robigus… though without the blood, please…


So… Day 24 of National Poetry Month.


and it is given
that we gather
this day
gather to guarantee
in the face of fungal effrontery
we are given
this day
that we may
harvest future days
red ways
we gather
to grant
despite spiteful time
and so we gather
not in supplication
but imprecation
against infringed fortune
days of bloody dearth
and barren bellies
to gather
we are given
this day
to ward
of stolen harvest
never to come

©Elizabeth Anker 2022