On the eve of November 11, you might come across groups of smiling German children carrying home-made lanterns through towns and cities in Germany. These lantern processions are a tradition of a widely celebrated religious observance known as St. Martin’s Day (Martinstag).
The holiday celebrates the life of Saint Martin of Tours (316-297 CE), a Roman soldier who was known for being modest and altruistic. After being baptized as an adult, St. Martin became a monk and was eventually appointed as the Bishop of Tours. Many people know of St. Martin for saving a homeless man by giving him half of his cloak during a snowstorm.
In remembrance of this humble saint, German children create paper lanterns, gather on the streets and sing songs about St. Martin as they march with their illuminated lanterns. Often times, the procession is led by a man on horseback who is dressed as St. Martin. After the walk, children and their parents gather around a bonfire.
Although St. Martin’s Day is a Catholic holiday – many children participate in the lantern processions, regardless of their religious backgrounds. The lantern walks have become a large part of German culture. St. Martin’s Day is one of the oldest religious holidays in the world, and is also celebrated in many other European countries.
If you live in the United States, there may even be a lantern procession in your city; some German churches, schools and communities come together to organize their own St. Martin’s Day celebration!
By Nicole Glass, German Embassy