Thanks to profit-minded businesses, American Halloween customs are increasingly infringing on German culture, but Halloween is not a traditional holiday celebrated in Germany. However, the customs associated with Halloween are not unfamiliar in Europe. A similar holiday has been celebrated in many European countries for centuries on November 11: St. Martin’s Day. In the traditional Catholic calendar, November 11, the birthday of Saint Martin of Tours, signifies the beginning of the forty-day fast before Christmas, and therefore is often accompanied by a special, last-hurrah feast of roast goose, the “Martinigans”. In some Potestant areas, however, the date was changed to November 10 to celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther instead. It was also the day of the year on which temporary farmhands or workers were dismissed for the winter, which for them and their families signaled the beginning of lean times. So originally, the children went around at night with lanterns carved from turnips or sugar beets, singing songs and collecting food to be stored for the winter. Later, the survival aspect became less prominent and the sweet tooth took over. Today, the children, just as for Halloween, collect mostly sweets and candy. In some areas, the traditional carved and candle-lit lanterns are still displayed in parades, but in other areas paper lanterns with artificial lights are more popular, partly for safety reasons. Some of the St. Martin’s Day parades get pretty elaborate with a horseman leading the parade to a public area where a big bonfire caps the festivities. Various regions also have their own songs for the “Martinisingen”, but the most commonly used song is “Ich geh mit meiner Laterne”.
und meine Laterne mit mir.
Da oben leuchten die Sterne
und unten da leuchten wir.
rabimmel, rabammel, rabumm.
In addition to the traditional St. Martin’s Day goose with red cabbage and dumplings, some areas celebrate the holiday with “Stutenkerlen” oder “Weckmännern,” little bread men made from a sweet bread dough (recipe). In other areas, these bread creations are associated more with St. Nicholas Day.
Today, the holiday has lost most of its original religious and historical significance. But just as the carving of pumpkins for Halloween is a hallowed part of an American childhood, the carving of turnips or the fashioning of a paper lantern for St. Martin’s Day is a magical part of German childhood and even many years later is remembered more fondly than the number of candy bars collected.
A video for the song “Ich geh mit meiner Laterne” (with lyrics).
German Embassy website about St. Martin’s Day (historical background, but also links to sites that show you how to make paper lanterns, as well as complete lyrics for the “Laterne” song above)
Lyrics and audio files for several St. Martin’s Day songs:
A German video explanation of St. Martin’s Day (the German is difficult to follow, even for intermediate learners, but there are subtitles and vocabulary explanations). Doable for more advanced German students.
Some additional teaching ideas for a St. Martin’s Day unit.
A couple of websites with instructions for making lanterns for St. Martin’s Day:
http://www.heimwerker.de/bauanleitung/feiertage-basteln-und-bauplan/sankt-martin.html (German and a few in English)