A Tiny Bit

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!

The Goose

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.

Liam, last year, at St. Martin
Liam, last year, at St. Martin

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.

Paper Lanterns

The kids with their lanterns.
The kids with their lanterns.

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

The Bonfire
The Bonfire

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.)

St. Martin
St. Martin

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.


Refor-what? or My True Feelings About Halloween

Courtesy of J-Me Photography
Courtesy of J-Me Photography

I’ll admit it: I pretend I’m not home on Halloween. You can call me a Halloween-Scrooge if you want (and some people have), but there are reasons for my darkened doorway. Halloween has never been a favorite time – the word “holiday” seems too festive and important, both of which Halloween is not – although the old photos are sweet. Little clown Dora with a painted red nose standing against the orange-accented green and yellow plaid wallpaper, usually with big brother clown next to her. Although my mother is a brilliant seamstress, costume-making was never her forte. She could have made some extravagant costumes (which she has since done for her grandchildren), but with the whole family lacking in Halloween-enthusiasm, why bother?

A brief aside: I have inherited my mother’s absence of costume creativity. When I was a child, I was a clown every year. Unfortunately I do not have clown costumes for my children, otherwise I would certainly pass along that tradition. But we’re developing our own rut – we have pirate costumes in varying sizes. By now I’ve got the red-kerchief-tying and moustache-drawing part down.

I have very few memories of Halloween. In one vivid scene I remember being scared when a gorilla jumped out in front of our car on our way to trick or treat. It pounded once on the car’s hood, then disappeared into the dark. I’m certain the rest of my family would deny it ever happened, but I know it did. Vaguely I remember slimy pumpkin innards and roasted seeds. As a teenager it was cool to attend a non-Halloween party on Halloween in a neighboring high school. That idea appealed to me as a costume was not necessary. In college my creative friend (now J-Me Photography) sewed M & M costumes for the five girls in our house. As one M & M in a bag of five, the costume-wearing thing was bearable.

Obviously I’ve never connected to the idea of Halloween. Coming from a Christian background, my church and parents were always unsure about Halloween – should we encourage participation; should we not? It was always made into a demonic, spirit-worshipping festival, which sort of took the joy out of eating candy. Certainly my issue with wearing costumes added (and continues to add) to my uneasy relationship with Halloween.

Imagine my relief when I arrived in Germany thirteen years ago to discover that Halloween was not practiced. I knew there was a reason I loved Germany! (Of course I had yet to discover the late February / early March tradition of celebrating Carnival or what Americans might know as Mardi Gras in New Orleans. During those four days of celebration most of the country is in an Ausnahmezustand, meaning a state of emergency or exception. People run around in costumes the entire time and listen to horrible speeches and annoying music. Halloween looks pretty tame compared to that!)

Over the years, however, the commercialization of Halloween apparently could not be avoided. Carved pumpkins began appearing more often; super gory eyeball candy conveniently packaged in hand-sized plastic made its debut in late October. Always looking for a good excuse to throw a party (and make an extra buck), the radio programs grabbed the opportunity and invited radio-land to Super Grusel parties, their idea of what Halloween should be – scary, eerie, spooky. The biggest town in these parts now has a “traditional” (after five years?!) Halloween parade; each year more ghosts, witches and monsters participate.

“Gel, so macht ihr das in Amerika?” (“This is how you do it in America, right?”) How often have I heard this question and how many times would I have loved to yell, “NOOO!” I was appalled the first time our doorbell rang on Halloween (has it really come to this?!) and even more so when the kids just stood there and didn’t say anything.

Und?” I finally asked after we looked at each in silence.

Ja, was ist? Es ist ja Hello-veen?” (Yeah, what’s wrong? It’s Halloween!)

Aaahhh! I stomped away leaving Patrick scrambling to fill their bags. He gave them the good advice to say something when the door is opened, but unfortunately “trick or treat” does not translate well. Instead the kids say, “Süßes oder Saures!” (sweet or sour).

It’s entirely wrong. The whole German Hello-veen thing just seems so phony. These kids have no idea what they’re doing, except getting free candy, which I could even accept. What kid doesn’t want free candy? But the reasoning “that’s what they do in America!” just does not cut it for me. And in Germany it has to be a spooky event with creepy costumes. I always try to convince people it’s not really like that – I was always a clown! – but no one believes me that Halloween is more like Carnival than what the Germans have made of it.

However the irony of it all is sometimes too much. I read a bit about Halloween on Wikipedia, that unreliable wealth of information, before I began writing this post. Most people know Halloween has its roots in Celtic-traditions, although which exactly seems up for grabs. Some say it was originally a festival celebrating specific gods; others say it was more of a harvest or summer’s end celebration. It did have to do with a certain time of year when spirits and fairies found it easy to come into our world, making them more active. Costumes developed out of the need to hide from these spirits.

Halloween began in the US as Irish and Scottish immigrants moved to the new country and brought their traditions with them, which I know provides comfort in a foreign place (I can attest to that!) and is therefore good and necessary. New interpretations on old traditions can’t be helped, however, and in the early 1900’s trick or treating evolved in North America out of the Scottish and Irish tradition of guising.

So here’s the ironic part: Halloween as is practiced in the States is a development from very old traditions. Isn’t this in reality what’s happening in Germany? They’re taking a form of celebration from another place and working at making it their own.

But I still have a huge problem with it and I believe it to be this: the tradition is missing. According to Wikipedia (sorry, I was too lazy to check out other sources) Halloween activities were first recorded in 1999 in Germany. When the event began in North America, there were Irish and Scottish immigrants who had a relationship to the rituals they were passing on. It was a piece of their Heimat (for more on this word, read this post) that they had brought with them. Here in Germany it’s just an event that people have heard about, certainly with help from marketers and “entrepreneurs” who see an opportunity to make money. A relationship to the event does not exist. There is a long-standing tradition that surrounds Halloween, but not in Germany.

I was proud of my husband this morning when I heard him say in response to our youngest’s proclamation, “Today is Hello-ween!”

“Today is Reformation Day!”

Refor-what? On October 31st, 1517 it is said that Martin Luther made his 95 Theses known, thus starting a revolution of the Christian world that he never intended. He actually only wanted to stimulate a discussion, among other things, about the sale of indulgences in the church. (It was believed by buying these indulgences from the church, one’s sins could be forgiven.) Throughout Germany and other parts of Europe during this time there were many others who were finding fault with the structures of the church and were daring to think outside the given lines and start something new. It was exciting, exhilarating and reckless, but these pioneers plowed on, eventually changing the face of the church forever.

That is what I call tradition. And a tradition well worth being proud of. Its celebration does not involve silly costumes or even free candy, but I can’t help but believe falling back on a tradition of individuals willing to ask difficult, sometimes damaging questions, despite the very real risks involved might be a more powerful one. Now we just need to figure out a way to make this legacy interesting to celebrate….

For all my disliking Halloween in Germany, I’ve already agreed to allow my children to walk up and down our street, ring doorbells and say, “Süßes oder Saures!” Yes, that in and of itself is ironic. But don’t be surprised if my light is not on after the kids are in bed. I’m probably pretending not to be home.