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Happy St. Martin’s Day! November 10, 2008

Posted by Jill (@bonnjill) in Fun stuff, German culture.

Saint Martin’s Day is without a doubt my favorite evening in Germany. St. Martin’s Day (or Martinstag, Martinmas, Martlemass, Mardipäev, etc.) is November 11, the feast day of Martin of Tours. Although in the Rhineland it is often celebrated on another day so that it doesn’t conflict with Weiberfastnacht, which is the kick-off for the Karnevalszeit (Mardi Gras) and takes place at 11:11 am on November 11 (11/11) when the women storm City Hall. The parade this year in Bonn is being held on November 10th. Even if you don’t understand German, you might want to click on the link and check out the photos (Bild-Galerie). Watching the kids walk through the dark night with their homemade lanterns simply warms my heart.

Martin of Tours was a Roman soldier who was baptized as an adult and became a monk. It is understood that he was a kind man who led a quiet and simple life. The most famous legend of his life is that he once cut his cloak in half to share with a beggar during a snowstorm, to save the beggar from dying of the cold. That night he dreamed that Jesus was wearing the half-cloak Martin had given away. Martin heard Jesus say to the angels: “Here is Martin, the Roman soldier who is not baptized; he has clothed me.” According to legend, Martin was reluctant to become bishop, which is why he hid in a stable filled with geese. The noise made by the geese betrayed his location to the people who were looking for him.

The day is celebrated in the evening of November 11 in many areas of Northern and Eastern Europe. Named for Saint Martin, the Fourth Century Bishop of Tours, this holiday originated in France, then spread to Germany, Scandinavia, and Eastern Europe. It celebrates the end of the agrarian year and the beginning of the harvesting. It also marks the end of the period of all souls, that begins on November 1st, which is why Saint Martin’s Day activities resemble those from Halloween.

Children parade down the street with paper lanterns and candles and sing songs praising St. Martin’s generosity. A man dressed as St. Martin rides on a horse in front of the procession and there are generally geese being pulled along in a cart. The parade is culminated in Bonn by a large bonfire on the Marktplatz. The kids then go door to door and earn sweets or treats by singing songs, dancing, or citing poems.

The lanterns the participants carry have become a distinctive part of the tradition. Every age group has its own lantern design, which becomes more elaborate with the age of the builder. Older youth often opt to take a flashlight and attach craft paper with cutout designs augmented with transparent colored cellophane paper making them appear like stained glass torches. I still have the lantern my boss’s daughter made for me in my room. Unfortunately the batteries corroded and the light on the plastic arm no longer works.

If you live in Philadelphia (Sarah…) you might want to check out the German Society’s St. Martin’s Day Parade.



1. Heike - November 11, 2008

Hi Jill, It’s raining cats and dogs today but this won’t stop real “Karnevalsjecken” celebrating the beginning of the fifth season in Cologne (http://www.koeln.de/koeln/1111_so_startet_koeln_in_den_karneval_92309.html), known as “Sessionseröffnung”. “Weiberfastnacht”, by the way, is the Thursday when Karneval actually starts with parades etc., usually in February. Timing depends on when Easter takes place in a year. Great, you still remember all these German traditional events! Have a great day, Heike

2. Sarah - November 11, 2008

What a great holiday… of course, I’m in favor of any holiday that involves creative crafts and sweets! Also, I had no idea the German Society was within walking distance of my house!

3. jillsommer - November 11, 2008

If that is the case I will be planning a visit to CETRA and your house in particular to enjoy this little holiday next year 🙂

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