Friday, November 11, 2005

St. Martin's Day

November 11 is a day of celebrations in Germany.

Today is Martinstag - St. Martin's Day or the Feast of St. Martin, honouring Martin of Tours (317 A.D. - 397 A.D.) one of the most well-known saints in the Catholic church.

Martinstag is all about giving to others and shedding light in the darkness. Like so many other Christian celebrations, the festivities coincide with pagan rituals from the pre-Christian era, falling at the same time as the early winter festivities of light and fertility celebrated by the pagans.

One of the legends surrounding St. Martin, a simple man who started out as a Roman soldier and later became Bishop of Tours, is that coming upon a beggar on a cold winter night, Martin immediately cut his military cloak through the middle with his sword and offered half of it to the poor man to keep him from freezing to death. Later that night, Jesus Christ was said to have appeared to him in a dream, wearing the half-cloak and commanding Martin to have himself baptized.

The second legend tell us the origin of the Martinsgans - the roast goose that is traditionally eaten around this time of year. Apparently Martin was a bit reluctant to become a bishop and as the day of his appointment approached, he hid in a barn, hoping that no one would find him. A gaggle of geese, however, gave him away with their loud chattering, and were punished by being slaughtered and roasted.

To honour St. Martin and the the festival of light, German children often go out at night in November carrying homemade paper lanterns and singing traditional songs.

In our town, the kindergarten organizes a Laternenumzug- the lantern procession - every year. Accompanied by the volunteer fire department marching band, the children and their parents walk up and down the streets of the town for an hour or two, often ending up at one of the two churches afterwards to get a traditional Martinshörnchen (a cresent roll), Martinsbrezel (a pretzel) or a Weckmann (a small man made out of yeast dough), as they are called where we live.

The Weckmann is significant because the clay pipe in his mouth symbolizes an upturned bishop's staff - a reminder of St. Martin.

Here's are a traditional Martinstag song that I like:

Ich gehe mit meiner Laterne und meine Laterne mit mir
(I go with my lantern, and my lantern goes with me)
Dort oben leuchten die Sterne und unten da leuchten wir.
(The stars are alight up there, and we are alight down here)

Der Hahn, der kräht, die Katz' miaut,
(the cock crows, the cat meows)
rabimmel, rabammel, rabumm.

Mein Licht is aus, ich gehe nach Haus'
(my light is out, I'm going home)
rabimmel, rabammel, rabumm.

Another tradition that in our area is carried out separately to the lantern procession is called matten, matten, meeren. The children go from door to door on the afternoon of November 11 singing this song and getting candy in return:

Matten, matten, meeren.
(no translation but I'm assuming 'matten'= Martin)
Die Äpfel und die Beeren.
(apples and berries)
Lasst uns nicht zu lange stehn,
(don't make us stand around too long)
Wir Wir wollen noch nach Bremen gehn.
(we still want to go to Bremen)
Bremen ist 'ne schöne Stadt,
(Bremen is a nice town)
Da geben alle Leute was!
(everyone there is generous)

More celebrations to come in the next post...


At November 11, 2005 1:05 p.m., Blogger Sandra said...

Sounds complicated. I bet the Germans are kicking themselves that they didn't think of Pepero Day first.

At November 11, 2005 1:15 p.m., Blogger christina said...

Sandra - LOL! I bet they are!

At November 11, 2005 5:03 p.m., Blogger hippo_pepperpot said...

I like the paper lamp shade... I saw something like that at Ikea.

At November 12, 2005 1:41 a.m., Anonymous lillian said...

wow.. you really know all about St. Marting tag... I might copy your post.. for next year :-)
We didn't do Matten, matten. Was a success for your kids though, wasn't it ! Look at those goodies !!! WOW.

At November 12, 2005 8:53 p.m., Blogger Crystal said...

German festivals are so fun I imagine, and in Chicago the city puts on a German-style Christkindlmart each year for the holidays. I love celebrations of all sorts, I can't wait to put up the Christmas tree!

At November 14, 2005 12:13 a.m., Blogger christina said...

hipppo - 99 Euro cents for the paper lantern. They're all over the place at this time of year.

Lillian - the stuff I didn't know I took off the internet. :-) You're welcome to copy anything you like. I'm always interested in the backgrounds of all these celebrations.

Crystal - the Christmas markets are just beautiful here. Our town always has a small one on the first Advent Sunday.

At October 25, 2007 7:51 a.m., Blogger Scott Partee said...


I'm an expat US-American living in Vienna and I found your site Googling for the words to the Latern song that my daughter is learning at her Kindergarten.

I thought I'd throw out a cynical legend that my boss told me re: Saint Martins day and the link to Geese. The Church used to extract livestock from the citizenry -- usually a pig. However, since Jewish people didn't keep hogs, they came up with the Goose link so that they could get some livestock from the Jews, too. Since it's hard to keep a ton of Geese, they'd sell them immediately for the now Goose-centric Saint Martin's feast for a quick revenue boost.

Now, there may be a slight bit of truth in that, but regardless, Martiniganzl is delicious here in Vienna.


At November 10, 2007 6:43 a.m., Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am an asian and work as a kindergarten assisstance in vienna-austria, I would like to give additional info about the goose part.

The story is that he hid in a stall in a barn, hoping to escape the people who were hunting for him. They had come to take him to be appointed Bishop. A flock of geese made a lot of noise and gave away his hiding place. The goose is the animal symbol of St Martin and a favorite food on Saint Martin's Day. He killed one of the geese, on the spot, in revenge. Later that night it was eaten for dinner.

And people all over Europe still celebrate the Saint’s day by eating geese. (Although some people think the real reason geese are eaten at this time of year is that it is November when they’re ready for slaughter. Farmers couldn’t afford to feed too many geese over the winter so they would slaughter them at harvest time).


At November 08, 2009 1:25 a.m., Anonymous Dirk said...

Many years later... I found your post through Google, looking for an explanation what the Laternenumzug on St. Martin's Day is all about... which I am now linking to from my blog. So you might get some new readers coming in to an ancient post of yours...

BTW: I'm more or less the opposite of you - a German guy who grew up in Northern Bavaria and moved to Portland, Oregon eight years ago and is married to an American - often puzzling about American traditions...


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