On the 11th of november, children in the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium and some parts of France walk and sing along the houses with their self made lantern to receive some gifts, mostly fruits or candy. This is to commemorate the saint St. Martin. He was one of the most popular saints in the Middle Ages and a lot of places enjoy his protection as patron saint. As a child I also made a lantern and walked along the streets singing St. Martins songs. The content of the songs were about the generosity of this saint to beggars and poor people.
Nowadays it’s a secular festivity and the songs are more modern and contain less religious content. But there are still many symbolic rituals and relics which are not eminently Christian. So, where do these folk customs come from? Can they be directly conceived as an antithesis of Christianity, or is it more complex than at first sight? Could it be a mixture of heathen, agrarian and Christian heritage?
The element light is very important. All the children walk with their selfmade lampions. Formerly the lampions were made of hollowed turnips, now they are mostly made of paper. It is related to the german feast ‘Rübengeistern’, which means ‘turnip ghosts’. This can be seen as old remnants of a harvest festival.
In some places in Flandern fires are made, the so called ‘St. Martins Fires’. In parts of Germany and Austria children also walk through the streets with their self made lantarns. A person dressed as St. Martin drives on a horse through the street while the children are singing. In the end this person unleashes a fire. So in some places there are fires, but almost everywhere the lantern parades can be found. One old description of St. Martin’s fires from the Low Countries are from 1443 in the city of Utrecht. Not strange because St. Martin is the patron saint of this city.
It’s an original Christian feast with non-christian elements. Especially in this era, the Christian elements are disappearing. The oral tradition of Christian St. Martins songs is changing to more common and neutral ones. Last decades they are invented and more commercial. But in how far could it be considered as Christian? Still, in some churches St. Martin is remembered were his stories and miracles are retold. So it can be possible that in the course of time the agrarian folk customs have come to coincide with the holy day. This is how folk Catholicism could be explained. Because this day was traditionally the beginning of the slaughter month and the goose markets.
It could also be a remnant of an old pagan light and harvest festivity. Some folklorists say the element of light is a remain of a pre-christian holy fire which was carried around in the beginning of the winter. Others say it is a Christian festivity because the light is a symbol for Christ and is spoken about during the miss on 11th of November. The mantle and white horse of St. Martin could be an influence from the Germanic god Wodan who’s wading around in this time of the year. In some area’s children walk along the streets making noise with a ‘friction drum’ ; a possible cleansing ritual to chase away demons.
But other folklorist say it’s just an ordinary begging festival because poor people had to survive in the cold winter periods. Some of the children’s songs are very humble and refer to a rich man who can give them some food. For a while it was even uncommon for rich children to take part because it was a poor man’s feast. Whatever it may be, hopefully children will uphold this tradition.
Did you know?
– It was an original catholic holy day, but it survived in a lot of protestants countries after the Reformation. So is was deeply rooted in the popular folk religion and could not easily be destroyed.
– St. Martin preached an overall soberness and generosity. That’s why he became the patron saint of beggars, children, poor people and shepherds and their cattle.
– In the 18th century most St. Martin’s Fires were prohibited because of fire risk. Also the fighting with torches, done by most youth, was prohibited.