They are celebrating the generous Sankt Martin of Tours, who according to legend shared his mantle with a beggar, who was sitting in the freezing snow, by cutting it in half with his sword.
A feast originally celebrated by only the catholic kindergardens the sense and beauty of it has spread and is now celebrated by all, no matter what the children’s own religious orientation or that of the kindergarten sponsors. In respect for religious sensitivities it might be called “Lichterfest” (feast of light) instead of Sankt Martin, but the teachers still tell the story of Sankt Martin, that he was a roman soldier, of his many good deeds, how he became a priest and finally a bishop. The parents wholeheartedly agree with the message.
Recently I was introduced to another tradition based on the legends surrounding the person of Sankt Martin. He was very humble and when the people and the church wanted to appoint him Bishop he hid between some Geese. They made such a noise that he was found and made Bishop. This did not bode well for the Geese, as having “Martinsgans” (Martinsgoose) is a traditional meal at this time of year.
I remember the preparations for the day in our church. Mass Servants, of which I was one, were involved in organizing and accompanying the procession. One of us owned a patient horse and she dressed up as the roman soldier Sankt Martin. The scene of the beggar and Sankt Martin meeting and the coat sharing were reenacted, after which the procession could begin. We shuffled along, wary of the enormous horse, close together for warmth and yet careful not to be caught by the lanterns waving around. Occasional “Careful”, “Watch the candle”, “Let me light it again” could be heard from anxious parents, amongst the singing. The lanterns were made by the children themselves, sometimes with the help of balloons, which were covered in a sticky mass of colored paper and glue. The balloons were removed when the mass had dried. Add a candle, a wire and a stick and the sense of achievement of the little one had grown a 100%.
After the procession freezing adults were rewarded with a hot drink, coffee or a Glühwein (glowing wine)and a Brezel (pretzel). The children could bake Stockbrot (bread on a stick) over an open fire to warm their noses, toes and insides.
Fifteen years later: My children made their own lanterns, while I followed them along freezing November village streets and welcomed the fire and company.
Another ten years later, I have moved to the city. As I drive along a nighttime road, I spot them. The little group is huddling along the sidewalk and I pity that they cannot take to the middle of the road as they still do in the villages or that there is no horse clip-clopping ahead of them. Then I hear the singing voices above the traffic and see them turn into a side street towards the nearby park. I realize that the tradition of commemorating the universal message of sharing can survive, even thrive, in this city as parents of protestants, catholics, muslims and atheists huddle around their precious offspring and say “Watch the candle”, “Let me light it again” or “Do you want me to carry it for you?”.
http://www.heiliger-martin.de/lieder/index.html You can listen to the songs here.