Celebrating St. Martin's Day on November 11

St. Martin's Day in Erfurt Enlarge image In Erfurt thousands of children and their parents gather on the square in front of the Mariendom cathedral and the Church of St. Severus. (© picture-alliance/dpa ) "Lantern, lantern, sun, moon, and stars. . . " This refrain echoes through the autumn streets of Germany every year on November 11. Happy children with colorful, handmade lanterns promenade through the streets, cheerfully singing songs they learned by heart. The candles in the lanterns flicker playfully, bringing a sparkle to the children’s eyes. Brimming with excitement, each child hopes to catch a glimpse of the man dressed in a medieval soldier’s uniform and his proud steed as they lead the procession of children.

St. Martin was born Martinus the son of a Roman military tribune in Savaria, in what is now Hungary, in 316/317 A.D. and joined the Roman army as a youth. At the age of 18 he was baptized and in 371 became the third bishop of Tours, a city in France. He performed missionary work and helped the poor and ostracized.

Handing Out Weckmänner © picture-alliance/ KNA-Bild Enlarge image Dressed as St. Martin, this man hands out "Weckmänner" to the awaiting youngsters. (© picture-alliance/ KNA-Bild)

Legend has it that at the gates of Amiens Martin met a poor, scantily clothed beggar, who asked him for help from the freezing cold. But Martin had nothing with him other than his military cloak, so he decided to share it with the man. With one stroke, he split his warm cloak in two and gave one half to the man, who was deeply grateful. After performing this act of generosity, Martin left the military service and had himself baptized a Christian so he could help people in need and value love greater than force.

Yet this act of mercy is not the only story about St. Martin still told today. There is also another legend about how he was named bishop. Being a modest man, he did not feel himself worthy to become bishop, so he hid in a stable filled with geese. The squawking of the geese was so loud that the townspeople found him and selected him as the new bishop.

The tradition of the St. Martin’s goose, which is typically served on the evening of St. Martin’s feast day following the procession of lanterns, most likely evolved from this legend. However, in many locales this custom has now been replaced by the serving of mulled wine, hot cocoa, and "Weckmänner" – baked goods in the shape of a man holding a clay pipe in his mouth. After the long procession of lanterns in the cool autumn air, this repast warms the soul and fills an empty stomach.

St. Martin's Day © picture-alliance/ dpa Enlarge image The lantern procession is an integral part of St. Martin's Day celebrations. (© picture-alliance/ dpa)

To this day, the origin of the much-loved procession of lanterns is still unclear. To some, however, it is a substitute for the St. Martin bonfire, which is still lit in a few cities and villages throughout Europe. It formerly symbolized the light that holiness brings to the darkness, just as St. Martin brought a flicker of hope to the lives of the poor through his good deeds. Even though the tradition of the large, crackling fire is gradually being lost, the procession of lanterns is still a delightful, practiced custom. Both young and old enjoy seeing the children lighting up the darkened streets with their lanterns and singing: "Up and down the streets, again the lanterns illuminate: red, yellow, green, blue, dear Martin come and look!"

Written by Denise Kotulla. Translation: German Embassy


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St. Martin's Day

Girl with homemade lantern in Hamburg