It was during our second winter in Berlin that I first became aware of Laternenfeste (lantern festivals). We had little twin babies and, despite early heavy snows, I spent much of my time traipsing icy streets pushing the pram whilst they slept. There was a period in early winter when afternoon after afternoon I saw lines of young children – pre-school age – muffled up against the cold, swinging pretty coloured lanterns and singing in shrill juvenile voices. I was intrigued, but not enough to find out what it all meant. My reaction was more one of ‘oh, that’s ever so sweet, it must be some sort of German tradition’ and then to forget all about it, as you do when you can’t imagine your own booty-wearing, rattle-shaking babes ever being old enough or robust enough to march the streets wearing boots and singing songs.
But since then, the unimaginable has happened and our children are now old enough and robust enough for their own winter boots and to attend a local nursery pre-school (KiTa). And last week, for the first time, they too joined the lines of young children piping out songs about lanterns and swinging their own homemade contributions. Off we trudged on an almost chilly November afternoon in the gathering gloom, through the streets, round the park and up to the top of a nearby hill, to find a big bonfire waiting and cups of warming Glühwein (mulled wine). Once there, we sang more songs about lanterns, watched sparks leap from the fire, and ran around in the dark until our hands were too cold and it was time to go home.
Over a steaming cup and in between cheery songs, I got chatting to our nursery teacher who told me snippets of the event’s historical meaning. The Laternenfest is a secular version of Martinstag – a Christian celebration on 11th November held in honour of St Martin, a kindly Roman solider, who, legend would have it, gave half of his cloak to a beggar in a snowstorm and then, having dreamt about Jesus, got baptised as an adult. Across Germany people organise bonfires and processions of singing children with lanterns, often led by a man on a horse dressed up as St Martin. Given that our nursery is in former East Berlin and has no religious affiliation, it takes no real stretch of the imagination to see this was, and still is, a way of making sure these non-religious children get as much winter fun as their church-going peers.
Having heard nothing of St Martin as a child, despite attending a Catholic school, my curiosity was awakened. Until then, my only association for 11th November was of Remembrance Day, when in Britain we honour fallen soldiers. A bit of googling later, it turns out celebrating St Martin is not confined to Germany, but is held in common across much of Europe. Indeed, even in Britain, St Martin celebrations were traditionally held on 11th November, but have for the large part been lost in the mists of time over the course of the post-agricultural 20th century. In previous more rural times, it used to be that St Martin’s day signified the completion of winter preparations – harvesting, seeding, slaughtering. It was a time for people to eat their fattest cow or goose, depending on the region, and join together to sing and be merry before beginning the long cold fast in the weeks until Christmas. This was a celebration of the earth’s bounty, not dissimilar, it would seem, to the North American Thanksgiving.
Before I discovered any of this, though, watching the my children’s excited eyes starting at the orange flames darting into the night sky, I was reminded not of religious festivals but instead of Guy Fawkes night (or Bonfire night) in Britain, celebrated on 5th November. Guy Fawkes was one of a group of English Catholics who planned the failed attempt to blow up the House of Lords (one of Britain’s Houses of Parliament) in 1605, hoping to assassinate the Protestant King and replace him with a Catholic one. The day is remembered annually with large bonfires, plenty of fireworks, some baked potatoes and other substantial treats, with most large public parks hosting an event. We don’t sing (perhaps because the fireworks are so noisy), but we do come together, take pleasure in celebrating outdoors despite November’s cold, mid-afternoon sunsets, and remember that it’s not too long until Christmas when another jolly event will cheer us all out of our winter malaise.