Martinstag and St. Martin

November 11 and the Legend of St. Martin

Also see: Halloween in Germany

There is an old traditional German custom that has much in common with Halloween: Martinstag (St. Martin’s Day, Martinsmas). The Catholic Martinstag observance on November 11 includes costumes and a lantern procession for children. Also known as Martini (from the Latin Festum Sancti Martini) in Austria and Bavaria, the feast day of Martin of Tours is celebrated in many parts of Europe, including even some Protestant regions. According to legend, Martin cut his red cloak in half to share with a beggar during a snowstorm. The traditional roasted goose (Martinsgans) meal on Martinstag is based on another part of the legend. Feeling unworthy of becoming a bishop, Martin hid in a stable filled with geese. The noise made by the geese betrayed his location, and the people of Tours had him consecrated as a bishop.

St Martin and the beggar

“Saint Martin and the Beggar” (ca. 1597-99) by El Greco PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

St. Martin’s Procession (Sankt-Martins-Umzug)
In parts of Austria, Germany, and Switzerland the Martinstag observance is a children’s affair. Carrying paper, candle-lit lanterns they have made in school, the young children take part in an evening procession, sometimes led by a rider on a white horse, emulating St. Martin and his red cloak. In some places the lantern procession ends with a Martinsfeuer (Martin bonfire).

Depending on the region, at the end of the lantern procession, the children are rewarded with a cookie called a “Weckmann” (Rhineland) or a “Stutenkerl” (Westphalia). See photo below. In some regions the children go door to door and sing for candy, fruit, or cookies. This is called “Martinssingen” or “Martinisingen.” In this way, the custom is very similar to Halloween’s trick-or-treat.


Weckmann mit Tonpfeife: Weckmann cookie figures displaying a white clay pipe. PHOTO: Wikimedia

In largely Protestant Berlin, there is a secularized version of Martinstag that is observed by some kindergartens and elementary schools with a lantern procession for the children, using lanterns they have made. The observance in Berlin deemphasizes the religious (Catholic) aspect. Rather than Martinstag, the custom in northern Germany is called “Laternenfest” – Lantern Festival.

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