Lanterns in the night

St. Martin, sharing his cloak (Photo Credit: jimforest on Flickr)

“It’s not St. Martin’s Day until someone sets their lantern on fire.” So said my wise friend just after we set our son’s lantern on fire. I suppose after combining a paper lantern, burning candle, and two-year-old on a pitch-black night, we had it coming. It wasn’t serious– the charred hole in the lantern had a certain charm, and the parade went on.

I really like St. Martin’s Day. It conflicts with Veteran’s Day in the U.S. which might be why I didn’t know much about it prior to living in Germany. One of the drawbacks of living overseas– missing familiar holiday celebrations from home– has a positive flip side: you get to experience new holidays. On St. Martin’s Day, children will make paper lanterns illuminated from the inside, and walk in a procession, singing songs about lanterns (which A. and I tend to sing all year round, now that we know them). If they’re lucky, there will be a man dressed as St. Martin himself, leading the procession on horseback. Families might also eat a celebratory dinner; the timing of the holiday is supposed to coincide with the final harvest.

We attended two St. Martin’s processions this year. I loved the first because the man playing St. Martin had a stunning black horse and, when it was over, rode off into the forest like a ghost. But the second had its charm too. It began with a short church service that featured children acting out St. Martin’s story– according to legend, he cut his own cloak in half on a bitter cold night and gave it to a poor man. Later, he dreamed that Jesus was wearing the other half of his cloak. To close the service, some children led a prayer asking God to always help them recognize when they could be of service to those less fortunate.

A.’s little friend from up the street must have been listening; she gave us one of her lanterns from the previous year to use during the procession. It had a battery-operated light inside– I can’t imagine why.


4 thoughts on “Lanterns in the night

  1. Lived in England for a few years as a child and visited other countries as an adult. Learning interesting things about their culture is priceless. My son is stationed in Germany at present. I’ll have to ask if he has heard of St Martin’s Day.

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