Dark fall evenings just beg to be lit up. When I first moved to Germany years ago I wondered about these magical little processions on mid-November evenings. Children carefully carrying paper lanterns, following a horse with rider, and singing songs. The mystery for me was solved when I had children of my own. The event is a remembrance of Martin of Tours. He was a Roman soldier on duty in France and according to legend, he was so moved by a poor beggar that he ripped his cloak in two with his sword and gave one half to the freezing man. Shortly afterwards Martin had visions, converted to Christianity and left the military life. He was so beloved that he later (reluctantly) became bishop. His name day is November 11th so traditionally preschools and towns organize processions on an evening around this date. You can read about him here.
Young children generally craft a lantern out of paper or paper-mache at their schools The children are also taught the legend and practice skits to reenact the sharing of the cloak, and learn a few traditional ballads about St. Martin to sing during the procession.
The procession itself can be small - just a preschool group - or very large. Our town has quite a large event with hundreds of people, mostly parents with young kids. A brass band plays the songs and the procession is led by a rider on horse, dressed like St. Martin. Older children carry flaming torches. (Of course the fire department is involved as well!)
I can imagine that before little battery lights were available, candles
in the lanterns caused many a ruined lantern and a tear or too.
It seems almost like an ancient rite as the procession trails through the tiny winding little streets of our town, along the Rhine river and the then ends at a massive bonfire. Often this fire is at the banks of the river which is a stunning sight. This year it was at the old Roman ruins (the remains of castle-like barracks) in the middle of town and was impressively gigantic. It occurred to me that these military ruins are now flanked on one side by the Roman Catholic church and on the other, the Protestant church. I'm sure that would make St. Martin happy.
What makes the children happy are the delicious sweet "Martin" pastries that they receive at the end of the parade to savor while being mesmerized by the flames and sparks of the bonfire.
On dark evenings, this light-filled tradition celebrating altruistic love is a wonderful respite from a sober month and season where branches are suddenly bare and the sky often gray.
My youngest son crafted this lantern at his school and I love how the colors glow when it is lit. Over the years, they have come home with lanterns of all shapes, themes and sizes. I suspect they have gotten to the age where they are just too old to join the procession. It seems like just yesterday I was pushing my oldest in her buggy and she was proudly holding her first colorful little paper-mache lantern we made at her play group. Lucky for her, she was still able to join the procession this year on the excuse that her little brother wanted her to come!