November: The mourning month

All Souls Day and Mainz’s Newweling candles

Today, November 2, is All Souls Day (Allerseelen). In Germany, most of Europe, and all over the world where the western Christian church is dominant, this is a day devoted to remembering and praying for the “faithful departed.” Indeed, the Latin (Roman Catholic) name for this day is In Commemoratione Omnium Fidelium Defunctorum (“commemoration of all the faithful departed”).

As history (and two world wars) would have it, November in the western world has become a month for commemorating the dead — whether fallen in war or otherwise. Since the 14th century, the Roman Catholic church has dedicated the month of November to the dead, and in the United States, November 11 is Veterans Day, a time to remember and honor those who fought and died, originally in the Great War ended by the armistice that took effect at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, on November 11, 1918. (In fact, the date was known as Armistice Day prior to World War II.) This day, known as Remembrance Day or Poppy Day in some other Allied nations, is also a holiday in France and Belgium.

But the 11/11 date has very different associations in the German-speaking countries. There November 11 is the official start of the Carnival season, and in some regions is also Martinstag (St. Martin’s Day), when children carry paper lanterns in a procession that resembles some aspects of Halloween. The German Volkstrauertag (People’s Day of Mourning, similar to Memorial Day in the U.S.) is also observed in November, but on the Sunday two weeks prior to the first Sunday of Advent (Nov. 16, 2008; since 1952 in West Germany). German Lutherans observe Totensonntag or Ewigkeitssonntag (“Eternity Sunday”) on the last Sunday before the first Advent Sunday (Nov. 23, 2008). It is a memorial day for those who have died during the past year. With the exception of Volkstrauertag, a national holiday, these are not official holidays, but they are religious observances generally protected by German law as “quiet days” or “quiet holidays” (stille Feiertage).

Two Newweling

  Two Newweling (Photo: Judith Pense)

While researching Allerseelen, I learned about the traditional coiled candles known as Newweling. These colorful cone-shaped candles are unique to Mainz, where they are placed on the graves of the departed. Ranging from 8 to 15 centimeters (3-6 inches) in height, the Mainz candles are known only in that area. Little is known about them, including their origin and meaning, why they are found only in Mainz, or why they are colored red, white, blue, yellow, and green. The first known written reference to Newweling goes back to 1347. The name may come from a dialect word for “child of the fog” (Kind des Nebels in standard German), derived from the often misty weather of Germany in November. Today there is only one source of the Newweling, a small waxwares factory owned by the Tusar family in Mainz. According to Franz Hubertus Tusar, it is only the Allerseelen candle tradition in Mainz that keeps his family producing the unique wax products, since there is not really a big market for Newweling. We can only hope that the Mainz Newweling do not become yet another interesting German tradition that fades into the past.

MORE > More German Holidays

PHOTO > Mittelbayerische Zeitung – Photo of Newweling

WEB > Farbenfrohes Totengedenken – Allerseelen und Newweling (article in German)