A riddle: What do a goose, paper lanterns and sweet yeast pretzels all have in common?
If you’re German the answer should be obvious; if you’re North American you are probably shrugging your shoulders.
The answer: St. Martin’s Day
So now you really have no idea what’s going on. Let me explain…on November 11 every year we remember Bishop Martin von Tours who was buried on that day in 397. Yes, the year was 397! Contrary to the lack of Halloween tradition (read about my feelings about that here), St. Martin’s Day rituals have developed from the stories of a man who lived from 316 to 397. Now that is what I call holding with tradition!
Martin (actually Martinus, his father being a Roman solider), as family obligations demanded, became a solider at the age of 15. Already at that immature age he was admired among his colleagues because of his humility and helpfulness. During those first years he prepared for Christian baptism from which Source he found ways to feed the hungry and clothe the needy with his meager allowance.
During a particularly harsh winter Martin rode (apparently there is little evidence that he actually rode a horse, but the story has evolved so that today’s St. Martin always sits upon a white horse) into the city where a beggar begged for mercy and help. Martin’s colleagues rode on, but Martin felt compelled to help. With only his sword and officer’s overcoat with him, he unbuckled his sword, removed his overcoat and slashed it in half with his sword. One part he gave to the freezing man; the other he wrapped around himself again. His fellow soldiers mocked him for such an act and he was punished with three days in jail for destroying military property.
But as the story goes, that event changed his life. The same night he had a dream in which Jesus appeared to him, covered in the halved overcoat. An angel spoke to him, “Martin, who is not even baptized, has covered Christ with this coat.” It was also because of this dream that Martin felt obligated to end his military service in order to serve God. Not until two years later did Martin finally leave the military with the reasoning that as a Christian he could not use the sword to kill and shed innocent blood. (He was, actually, the first Pacifist!) He soon began his training to become a priest and eventually entered a monastery.
Ten years later, when a new bishop needed to be anointed, the people called for Martin. He was well-known because of his good deeds, and the people were confident he would be a worthy bishop. Martin, on the other hand, was still humble and felt unworthy for such a position. He tried to escape the pull of the people, and as it is told, he hid in a goose barn. The loud cackling of the geese revealed his hiding place and eventually sealed his fate. On July 4th, 372 Martin was consecrated as Bishop von Tours.
Because of their betrayal, the goose now belongs to the traditional St. Martin’s meal.
A week before the actual event, Patrick sat huddled over a too small table in kindergarten (preschool) creating a silver cat lantern with a pink-striped parchment paper middle for our youngest daughter. As agreed upon in our marital contract, Patrick is responsible for all things crafty and St. Martin lanterns definitely fall into that category. We agreed when Fenja began kindergarten that each of our children would get one parent hand-crafted lantern for the duration of their childhood. Each year we blow off the dust and check the condition of the lanterns and corresponding lights-on-sticks that make the lanterns glow. Fenja’s mouse lantern, already five years old, has some water damage from one particularly wet St. Martin’s fest, but looks good otherwise. Liam decided he wanted something new this year. Fine, as long as he did it himself. And he did. He crafted, with very little help, his own bat lantern this year. And Alida could not be more pleased with her kitty. With one new light stick and a few new batteries, the lanterns were ready.
Unfortunately this year we arrived too late at the church and only got back row seats. As the organization of the event at some point fell to the kindergartens, the littlest ones carry the responsibility to awaken the adults’ enthusiasm. And this they do, at least in our town, with success. Filled as if it were Christmas, each bench and side aisle was stuffed with eager and restless children and parents, some looking stressed, others with large cameras hanging around their necks. Again, just as with the church service for Liam’s first day of school (read about that here), this service was voluntary, except for the maybe ten children taking part in the program, and yet they came. The majority of the people there have little to no contact with church, and yet because “that’s what you do on St. Martin”, they come. It’s mind-boggling, every time.
Each year we sing songs specifically about St. Martin and the story of how he shared his overcoat, but also other songs about God welcoming all of us. And each year the story is re-enacted so that we will remember and take St. Martin as an example. Every year the children in the program pray for poor children in our world and that each person may find a way to help. Even among the noisy children, it is moving. Every year.
The masses are then released. We walk through the streets of our town, if we’re lucky in a spot right behind the town band where you can actually hear the music and sing along. The kids proudly carry their lanterns, shining light into the darkness of our world.
Sweet Yeast Pretzels
Finally we all meet up again at our town square where a blazing bonfire has been prepared by our firemen. We walk by this year’s St. Martin, sitting atop his horse, where each child sees the man whom we strive to model, just like in one Martin’s song: “Ein bisschen so wie Martin, möchte ich manchmal sein und ich will an andre denken, ihnen auch mal etwas schenken. Nur ein bisschen klitze klein möchte ich wie St. Martin sein.” (A little bit like Martin, I would like to sometimes be. And I want to think of others, sometimes give them something too. Just a tiny little bit would I like to be like him.)
Like every other parent at the square, we rummage through our bag and produce cups of varying sizes. Then Patrick and Liam stand in line. And wait. With all those parents and kids, it takes a while. But finally it’s their turn and our cups are filled with warm punch and (for Mama) warm wine, called Glühwein. By now the cold has seeped into our toes and fingers; the girls and I wait impatiently for the boys to return. When they do we gladly wrap our hands around the cups, feeling the warmth spread out. And then the best: Patrick produces five huge soft pretzels, one for each of us. The sweet dough is a treat.
We stand with our friends and their children in a circle, dancing from one foot to the other to warm them. It seems the whole town has come out and we meet acquaintances we haven’t seen for awhile. Despite the cold there is warmth radiating through the people. The bonfire and punch do their part, but as we share within this community, it is as if we indeed, for a few brief moments, have become just a tiny bit like Martin.