Dancing peasants. Engraving by Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528).

There was once a farmer to whom fortune had granted considerable wealth, which he and his friends, one St. Martin's Eve, turned to the good purpose of celebrating. They had drunk so much wine that they could hardly speak. A band of thieves, prowling about, heard them babbling, and took their chance to break into the farmer's barn.

The company was making such a frightful uproar, however, that only one of the thieves, after they had broken a hole in the door, had the courage to go in. He was a clever thief, but two watchdogs nearly cost him all his gains by raising such a noise that the farmer came with a lantern to investigate. The thief saw the farmer coming, and, realizing there was not time to escape, took refuge in his wits.

Quickly he threw off all his clothes. The farmer confronted a stark-naked man who was rapidly making the sign of the cross a good twenty times over each of the cattle and the animals and finally the astonished farmer himself, all the while working his mouth as though pronouncing a blessing. Speechless, the farmer could only lurch nearer when the thief beckoned and whispered confidentially.

"Behold how I have blessed your possessions," said the thief, ceremoniously. "I'll not forsake you. I am St. Martin, and I mean to repay you for the generous offering of wine you have drunk to me. You shall have the profit yourself of your devotions. There were thieves here, who would have robbed you of your livestock and everything else, but I am watching over you and yours. I have put a blessing on you and whatsoever you own so that none can rob you, whensoever or wheresoever. Now put out your light, dear sir, and go back to your pleasures. I must return whence I came, but still I will guard you."

Deeply touched, the farmer wept. "Ah, me, poor sinner," he thought, "that St. Martin should visit such as me, and deign to bless my things!" He bowed graciously and put out the light, so drunk that he was convinced he had indeed seen the saint himself. He went unsteadily back to the house, much to the thief's amusement, muttering. "Ah, blessed am I, for I've seen St. Martin with my own eyes, and he has rewarded me for the wine I drank in his honor by protecting my house from thieves. Yes, we'll all drink tonight in praise of St. Martin--why, I'd have my chickens drink to him, if they would!"

Back in the house, he sent his servant around to fill all the glasses. "Now I know how good it is to honor the saints," he bellowed. "We'll all drink so much wine to St. Martin, he'll be in our debt forever! Now that I know how to please him, I'm going to drink to him with everything I've got--that's only right, and he'll love me the more for it!"

The farmer sent his wife to get one of their best aged cheeses, and then they started to celebrate in earnest. They drank to the health of body and soul, first for the farmer, then his wife, and then everyone else, although it hardly did their souls much good. "Drink, my boys," roared the farmer. "We haven't even begun yet. We'll really do it proper tonight. Here's to you, St. Martin, there's no saint like you in all of heaven! Raise your tankards, boys, and don't let 'em stay empty! It's for St. Martin we drink tonight, and for our souls, and who has a better holiday than he does? Drink, I say, every drop in the house!"

And drink they did, for love of St. Martin, until they all lay in a stupor on the floor. The thieves, of course, were more than happy that night to drive away the strong oxen and many a fine cow.

When morning came, the farmer recovered enough to go out to his stalls, which he found empty. He went back to his company with the bad news. "It looks like St. Martin has gone off with all the cattle," he mused. "I wonder where he took them?"

That day was nothing like the night before. He who had gotten twenty tankards full then got nothing now. In fact, the farmer and his family were soon weeping. "You've got the brains of an ox yourself," his wife snapped. "You and your visions!" But the farmer didn't care what people thought of him. What he regretted was his loss.

Now I warn all my friends not to be taken in by the talk and trickery of thieves. You may know an honest man by the way his deeds bear out his words. And none is so easily fooled as one who wants to be.