Celebrating St. Martin's Day
Each year, on the 11th November, St. Martin’s Day is celebrated in Germany. It is a mix of Christian and pagan customs. While it is the day of a saint, it is also associated with the Roman Vinalia, a wine festival in honour of Bacchus. It is generally considered to be end of all harvest, including the late vines, and the beginning of winter.
First and foremost, during my childhood, St. Martin’s Day was a festival for children. Weeks before the day, we took stiff black paper, sheets of shiny, colourful transparent paper, glue, thin wire and all the wonderful artsy things, which we were not usually allowed to play with to school, where we were instructed in the magical art of lantern-making. We happily designed, drew and cut shapes and windows out of the stiff black paper. The red, green, gold, yellow, blue, scarlet sheets, and sheets of as many other colours as your parents were willing to purchase for you, became the “glass” for these cut-outs. A stiff piece of cardboard was used to provide the bottom for your lantern, while the top was left open, but held together with a wire with a loop in the top. A small tinfoil candleholder was securely glued to the middle of the cardboard bottom. The lantern was carried on the end of a thin, lightweight cane, which was furnished with a hook at one end, over which the loop was slipped.
It was an absolute matter of pride to have a good, sturdy and beautiful lantern; if you had managed to make one with recognizable shapes, perhaps even one to copy some of the stained glass windows in the church, you were a proud and happy child indeed.
Legend has it that Martinus was a Roman soldier, born in Hungary, educated in Pavia, in Italy. On a bitter winter’s night, during a military campaign, he found himself in Amiens, France, astride his horse, a starving and freezing beggar on the ground in front of him. Martinus drew his sword, cut his cloak in two and flung one half of it down to the cowering beggar.
The following night he dreamt that he saw Jesus wearing his cloak, saying to the angels, "Here is Martin, the Roman soldier who is not baptized; he has clothed me." (Sulpicius,ch 2)
Martinus became a Christian at the age of 18; in 371 he became Bishop of Tours, in France. According to his legend, he was unwilling to become bishop. He hid in a stable filled with geese, whose noise betrayed him to the people coming to look for him. Perhaps that is the reason why goose is the festive fare traditionally eaten on his day. Martin, the Bishop, is said to have led an exemplary life and to have done many good deeds.
Each year, on the Saint’s feast day, the beggar scene is re-enacted at the end of a long procession of children through German towns and villages. Children from all local schools get together with their teachers and parents; men with flaming torches line the route of the procession, the children carry their sparkling lanterns, the small candle inside now lit, singing traditional Martin’s songs, singing about the holy man on his white horse, the lights in the sky and the lantern lights in their hands. At the head of this procession rides St. Martin, always on a white horse, dressed in Roman costume, with a cloak fluttering about his shoulders; he leads the procession to the doors of the church where a huge Martin’s fire has been lit and where a beggar awaits him, crouching on the lowest step in the dark. away from the fire.
St Martin arrives at the head of his procession; the children spread out across the front of the church to watch him cut his cloak in two with a grand flourish, lean down from the saddle and hand the half-cloak to the beggar. Each procession goes about the play-acting at the end differently, using a different script for the short scene in front of the church, but always the beggar is invited to step closer to the fire and wrap himself in the good man’s gift.
It was a magical evening of walking in procession, carrying lights and singing old familiar songs, the flames of the big Martin’s fire strangely frightening and seductive at one and the same time and all of us pushing and shoving, craning our necks and listening intently; we did not want to miss a word of what was being said during the play; after all, we believed every word was true.
We children too received a gift to take home at the end of the evening: a cone-shaped paper bag filled with a few sweets and a piece of fruit; each bag always held a small sweet wheaten loaf in the shape of a man, with raisins for eyes and a white clay pipe stuck to the front. Never did a piece of sweet bread taste better.