St Martin's celebration; German traditions; 11 November; No Halloween; Lanterns and a procession, bonfire, goose, Weckmann
Europe

St Martin’s Day celebrations

We don’t celebrate Halloween in Germany. However, our kids definitely don’t miss out on dressing up or getting bucket loads of candy from the neighbours, especially in our area of Germany. It just does not happen on 31 October. Instead, the celebrations related to St Martin’s Day.

11 November is St Martin’s Day

Who was St Martin?

Martin was a Roman soldier who was born in 315 AD in Szombathely, which is now in Hungary.

According to the legend, one bitterly cold Winter day, Martin was riding to Amiens when he came across a beggar. The beggar was dressed only in rags and shivered with cold. Martin felt so sorry for him that he took his sword and cut his cloak in two, giving half to the beggar. The next night, Jesus Christ appeared to him in a dream, wearing the half of the cloak Martin gave to the beggar.

11 November is St Martin's Day; "St Martin divides his cloak" by Hughie O'Donoghue, at St Paul's Cathedral, London; German traditions

Later, Martin left the calvary and became a monk. He served as Bishop of Tours for 30 years and it is said that he performed a number of wonders during this time. Martin died was buried n Candes-Saint-Martin (central France) on 11 November 397. He was later canonised.

Today, St Martin of Tours is the patron saint of various occupational groups including winemakers, weavers and tailors. He also traditionally takes care of beggars, soldiers and pets.

How is he celebrated?

In ours and other areas of Germany, as well as neighbouring areas of the Netherlands and Belgium, St Martin is celebrated on or around 11 November.

Lanterns and the Martins procession

Colourful, glowing lanterns have long been a St Martins tradition.

Early Christians are known to hold processions, with lanterns. Presumably, St Martin was also honored with a procession on his memorial day.

Fires were also lit to celebrate and give thanks for the end of the harvest. Children would make torches from straw and lanterns from hollowed-out beets and parade through the street with them. These are similar to the Celtic harvest customs, which gave birth to Halloween.

Today, kids will buy or build lanterns, normally from paper and not beets (though there is one area of Belgium where they still use beets). They light their lanterns (LED globes) and proceed through the streets, singing songs about St Martin.

Dinosaur lantern for the St Martin's Day procession

Larger processions are normally led by a rider, dressed as a Roman soldier, on a horse. Commonly, a brass or woodwind group provides music for the singers.

Smaller groups will go from house to house and sing. This is much like trick or treating – children receive sweets or treats for singing.

St Martin’s Bonfire

St Martin’s processions are normally concluded with a bonfire.

This tradition may also have a Celtic origin. Alternatively, farmers may have lit a bonfire to celebrate the end of the harvest and the start of winter. 11 November was the last day of the harvest of grain and wine before starting to slaughter the animals.

A St Martin's Day bonfire traditionally follows a lantern procession; St Martin's celebrations; German traditions

Weckmänner

After a St Martin’s procession, children also normally receive fruit and nuts and a ‘Weckmann’. They are also known as Stutenkerle, Piepenkerle, Hefekerle, Kloskaehlsche, Printenmänner, Hanselmänner, Klasenmänner or Jahresmänner.

Weckmänner are made of yeast dough in the form of a man. They have eyes and sometimes buttons of raisins and hold a clay pipe. They are supposed to resemble a bishop (St Martin or St Nicholaus) and the pipe is the bishop’s crosier. No one is sure how the crosier ended up as a pipe.

Nowadays, bakeries have been baking Weckmänner for the last few weeks. Some will even continue to bake them until 6 December (St Nicholaus Day).

Weckmann, with pipe; based on a bishop with his crosier; Weckmänner are traditionally eaten to celebrate St Martin's Day in the Rhineland; German traditions

Goose

Traditionally at this time of year, you also eat ‘Martins Gans’ or roast goose. Why goose?

When the people of Tours wanted him to become their bishop, Martin didn’t feel worthy and hid in the barn with the geese. The geese gave him up with their honking.

According to another legend, geese wandered into the church one Sunday and upset Martin’s sermon. As punishment, they were roasted and served for lunch.

Of course, it could just be that geese migrate around the time of his death.

Alternatively, taxes were due on 11 November and were often paid in kind, such as with geese. Simultaneously, 11 November was the last day before the start of a 40-day period of fasting before Christmas – a good time for a feast.

Roasted goose is often eaten to celebrate St Martin's Day in remembrance of the geese that revealed Martin's hiding position or interrupted his sermon; Photo by Ibrahim Munir on Unsplash

What about the dressing up?

In the German Rhineland, children definitely do not miss out on the chance to dress up.

At 11:11 a.m. on 11 November – St Martin’s Day – the ‘fifth season’ officially starts. By this, I mean Carnival in the Rhineland. For one day, you will see people dressed up in costumes, especially in Cologne.

The main celebrations start on Weiberfastnacht, the Thursday before Lent. This involves large parties and processions for six days, as well as traditional and outrageous costumes. Many people will put a lot of thought and time into their carnival costumes, much like Halloween costumes in other countries.

Kids are very much involved, with schools and kindergartens involved in processions. Naturally, this means costumes.

Vital elements of a clown costume for Karneval; the 'fifth season' (carnival) starts on St Martin's Day in the Rhineland

What about jack-o-lanterns?

Jack-o-lanterns are the one thing that we don’t specifically have here. However, there is little difference between a jack-o-lantern and a lantern carved out of beets…

Enjoy sign-off blue
St Martin's celebrations; German Rhineland traditions; Procession with lanterns to celebrate St Martin's Day instead of Halloween; dinosaur paper lantern

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