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December 2000 - Nr. 12


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St. Martin


Laterne, Laterne, Sonne, Mond und Sterne
Gehe auf mein Licht, gehe auf mein Licht,
Nur meine liebe Laterne nicht.


Lantern, lantern, sun, moon and stars
Burn bright my light, burn bright my light,
Just don’t burn my lantern.


This is but one of the many songs children all over Germany sing on St. Martin’s Day when they march through the streets of their village, town or city with their self made lanterns.

Mine was made by a local artist by the name of Carl Heissler.

The weeks before St. Martin’s Day in October, and especially during the days of early November, children everywhere design and build their own lanterns. They are usually made of black photo paper, with cut outs which are filled with colourful transparent paper, to resemble stained glass windows when the candle inside is lit. This one was constructed from wood and glass and therefore lasts many years.

St. Martin’s Day is on November 11 and generally considered to mark the beginning of winter, but also the day when farmers are thankful for a good harvest and hope for a winter in which all supplies will last until the next spring and summer. Wine makers, particularly in the more southern regions and in Austria, celebrate their new wine, often with a banquette, teachers and pastors are being thanked and rewarded with gifts, especially the Martin’s goose.

No one knows exactly how St. Martin became associated with a goose, but there are many legends, just like there are many different stories surrounding the man called St Martin.

Martinus was born in Hungary as the son of a Roman Knight and educated in Pavia, a city in Italy. Already in his youth he developed an interest in the Christian religion and he wanted to become a monk and live somewhere in peace and quiet. But as the son of a Roman veteran there was little chance of that. The fearless Germanic tribes were falling into Roman territory, burning and plundering along the way. Martinus had to become a warrior and fight back these hordes.

During a very cold winter night near Amiens, a city in the north of France, he encountered a man, crippled by the war, hungry and freezing. Martinus felt the bitter cold himself, but took his sword and cut his cape like coat, cut it in half and gave it to the frozen beggar. Later that night, when he met up with his comrades they made fun of him. During that night he had a dream, which caused him to become a Christian at the age of 18. He enjoyed the business of war less and less and finally asked to be dismissed from service. His superiors laughed at him and suggested that he did not want to leave because of his faith but because he was afraid and a coward. Martinus offered to prove that this was not his reason by going to battle the next day in the front lines without weapons. When the morning arrived it was found that the enemy had fled the region during the night and Martinus could leave the service.

From then on he worked for his religion, founded monasteries. In the year 371 he was to become the Bishop of Tours in middle France. He did not want to be elected and hid himself. But he was soon found, the quacking of a goose gave him away.

His charitable nature made him very popular and to this day we commemorate his exemplary life on the day he died 16 hundred and 1 year ago with a lantern procession through the towns and cities in Germany and other European countries.

With their lanterns children of all the schools walk through the streets sing songs of St Martin and his deeds, about the magic of lanterns. The beggar scene is always recreated before the children part from each other to go to their own neighbourhood. There they go from house to house and sing these songs again and become rewarded with candy, fruit and special cakes. Especially the Martin Man is a favourite, a little man made of sweet yeast dough with a clay pipe.

St Martins Day is a mix of pagan and Christian customs. While it is the day of a saint, it is also associated with the Roman VINALIA, a wine festival in honour of Bacchus.

A translation by Barneby Googe tells us how Martin’s Day was celebrated in 15th century Germany:

To belly cheer, yet once again,
Doth Martin more incline,
Whom all the people worshippeth
With roasted geese and wine.
Both all the day long, and the night,
Now each man open makes
His vessels all, and of the must,
Oft times, the last he takes,
which holy Martin afterwards
Alloweth to be wine,
Therefore they him, unto the skies,
Extol with praise devine.


I walk with my lantern and my lantern walks with me.
Up there shine the stars, and down here our Lanterns…

Ich geh mit meiner Laterne, und meine Laterne mit mir.
Da oben leuchten die Sterne, hier unten leuchten wir.
Mein Licht ist aus , ich geh nach Haus,
Rabimmel, rabammel, rabumm…


See you at the lantern walk…

Sybille Forster-Rentmeister

(originally published November 1999 in Echo Germanica)

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