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Martinstag - The coming of winter

November 10, 2016

November is an important month in many cultures around the globe. It is the month associated with the beginning of winter and as such is subject to many traditions. In Germany the celebration of Martinstag endures to this day with events celebrated across the country. 

The feast of St Martin originated in the late fourth century and was introduced to venerate St Martin of Tours. A Roman army conscript St Martin traversed the roads from his home in Hungary across many parts of Europe. The army required 25 years service however it is cited by several sources that he left as a conscientious objector after serving only two. The violent nature of a soldiers life was at odds with his Christian values.

 

St Martin was a kind man which was demonstrated by his most famous act. Stationed in a French town he came across a beggar who was shivering uncontrollably with cold. Martin removed his red army cape, sliced it in half and wrapped one piece around the poor homeless man. The following day Martin declared that he had a vision of Jesus wearing the cloak. Shortly after this event Martin was baptised and devoted himself to religion.

 

After years living the solitary life of a hermit he travelled across western Gaul preaching and converting people to the Christian faith. In 371 AD he was elected Bishop of Tours although the story is that he was reluctant to take the role. He is claimed to have hidden in a barn filled with geese to avoid the ceremony -  a choice he regretted as the birds noisily revealed his location.

 

 

 

The celebration of Martinmas began several hundred years after his death and was associated with the beginning of Lent in medieval times. Many of the traditions introduced were reminiscent of Pagan festivals which marked the end of the harvest and this association led to St Martin being the patron saint of the harvest in Germany. He is also revered as the patron saint of the poor.

 

The festival was a Catholic affair until the reformation at the time of Henry VIII. Rather than ban the feast the Protestant religion adopted the day to venerate Martin Luther, the man chiefly responsible for the reformation in Europe. The day of this celebration shifted to the 10th of November although some still celebrated on the 11th. People would light fires and use lanterns made from turnips to honour the saint.

 

In modern times the German name for the festival was changed to Martinstag meaning 'St Martins Day'. At one time bonfires of celebration lined the banks of the Rhine which must have been a truly spectacular sight. Many bonfires still illuminate the night sky along the river though there are many less these days. Instead the highlight of Martinstag is the lantern walk which is a favourite for children throughout Germany.

 

Children spend the days before Martinstag making paper lanterns many of which reflect the medieval origins of the festival as they are constructed to resemble turnips. The Martinstag Eve parade often begins at a church and culminates in the centre of the town where the spectacle of a roman soldier riding a horse awaits. Children finish the evening by singing songs and collecting sweets from townsfolk.

 

On the 11th November the traditional feast foods of goose, dumplings and red cabbage are served. Sweet croissant shaped cakes known as martinshornchen traditionally made as treats for children are also enjoyed. It is still a day for celebration and reflection in many regions of Germany today.

 

In the UK common English folklore states that if it is warm on St Martins day the winter will be cold but if it is icy on St Martins day the winter will be mild. Parades may no longer be a part of the saints day in England yet German communities across the UK often come together to celebrate with lantern walks.

 

The festival of Martinstag illuminates the night across Germany and brings families together to share a sumptuous meal and raise a glass of gluewein to the coming of winter. It punctuates the year with a blaze of light to celebrate the life of a famous saint but also to bring a little warmth and joy to November -  the darkest of months.

 

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