Treats without tricks: St Martin in Germany

Every November brings a challenge for German parents: The candy collection. If you now think of Halloween, you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. The very American habit of “trick or treating” has made it to Germany and is nearly as popular as in England. It is, however, facing stiff competition from an older tradition: The “Martinssingen”

Candy comes without tricks and without any threats on November 11th (or someday around it), when Catholic communities remember the good deed of a Hungarian/Roman knight who shared his coat with a beggar to protect him from the bitter cold.

A children’s song (video below) describes the myth, telling of the importance of sharing with the less fortunate: and it is this song that earns treats for children who knock on doors, carrying a lantern or (if they are older and allowed to) a torch.

I vividly remember the pride when I was allowed a torch for the first time, and how I on the other hand missed the beautiful lanterns that could be bought from shops or handmade at home or in school. As a small child, these lanterns came with an actual candle that had to be relighted all the time. Later, to avoid the fire hazard of giving an open flame to young kids, electric lights replaced the actual candles – the same process that makes modern Christmas trees less dangerous, but also less exciting.

Lanterns as well as torches are the main ingredients of the traditional St. Martin’s Parades that are common in many places in West Germany – and even in Manchester a St Martin’s Parade is organised every year by the Martin-Luther-Kirche in Stretford. Interestingly, where St Martin isn’t celebrated, Lantern parades are still common, just on other nights of the year. There seems to be a set of traditions that always find a way into existence and don’t care much which historical reason is given. St Martin celebrations in Germany also feature a huge bonfire, and while the English have their fire at Guy Fawkes Night, it’s pretty much the same event, and even at the same time of year – just the same as the striking similarity between Martinssingen and Trick or Treating.

The St Martin’s Parade is open for everybody. It is led by St Martin in person – or rather: A volunteer on a horse, wearing half a coat and a sword, responsible for starting the bonfire, which only the bravest dare to do from the back of the horse. Before the start of the parade, it’s Weckmann time. The Weckmann is a small sweet bread, shaped like a man, with raisin eyes, carrying a pipe. It’s hard to say where this tradition comes from, and to be totally honest, it is regionally limited to a very small part of the Rhineland. North and South of this area, people might enjoy other pastries in different shapes or not have any at all, and the most infuriating bit is that some Germans call the “Weckmann” by the alternative name of “Stutenkerl” – a fact I did not know before I started researching this article.

In many parts of Germany the evening ends with a proper family dinner, only complete with a “Martinsgans” – a specially fattened goose, roasted and prepared in a way that much resembles American Thanksgiving turkey.

Instead of goose, British people of old preferred “Martinmas beef”, produced during the annual slaughter of fattened cattle, especially for this event, when the autumn wheat seeding was completed. “Martinmas”, the Fest of Saint Martin, was also known as “Old Halloween”. In Scotland, Martinmas is one of the term days and universities referred to their autumn term as “Martinmas term”.

In England, remembrance day as a national celebration has overshadowed any other meaning of November 11th. I remember being asked if this is also an important date in Germany, but I have to admit, it isn’t. German historical awareness is much more focused on the second World War rather than the first one, and November 11th is reserved for St Martin and the beginning of the Carnival season – a loud and noisy event for those who are into this very special German tradition.

So who is this famous Saint? Martin le Miséricordieux (Martin of Tours) was a Roman soldier of allegedly Hungarian descent. He was born in 336 and died on November 8th, 397 – and between these two dates he left a decisive mark in the Christian community of his time. He would probably have been surprised to know that many centuries later, he made an even bigger impact when he was turned into the French patron saint during the Franco-Russian war in 1870. His shrine in Tours is today an important stopping point for pilgrims walking the St James Way to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

Growing up in North Italy, Martin joined the Roman army and served as a cavallery soldier for roughly a decade before turning to the Christian faith and being baptized as an adult. This is where the legend of the shared coat comes in. In a dream after his charitable deed, Jesus appeared to him, wearing the beggar’s half of the coat, claiming that by dressing the beggar, Martin dressed him. Shortly after, the former warrior got baptized, joined a Christian monastery and went on to become the third bishop of Tours.

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