St. Martin’s Day

A charming tradition I’d rather leave behind

November 15th, 2019

What a nice little festival, I thought. Little boats with lit candles inside, sailing peacefully across the lake through the darkness. Children singing against the backdrop of the picturesque Blutenburg Castle. It was St. Martin’s, a popular fall festival.

This was a great opportunity to introduce my 10-month old daughter Natasha to some of the local culture. Naïve new mom that I was, I was certain she would be thrilled at the sights and sounds. I packed her up snug and warm against the icy wind and set off with the stroller.

 I did my best to call her infantile attention to the festive happenings.

“Look sweetie! Paper boats with candles floating on the lake!”

“Listen! Those children over there are singing! And so are their parents!”

The bit about the parents involved some generous exaggeration. While the kids had been rehearsing these songs for weeks, the parents had only received faded photocopies of the songs a couple of days beforehand. Nobody had learned the lyrics, so they stood there struggling to hold onto the paper as it flapped around in the cold wind. It was impossible to decipher the text in the dark, so instead they swayed slightly in loving parental fashion, bravely mouthing the words and even singing part of the refrain (“St. Martin, St. Martin…” As long as you’re not deaf, you’d pick up on that one).

Luckily the wind wasn’t blowing too hard that night

But at the time I was oblivious to these details, which would all reveal themselves to me in due course. The only thing that mattered to me at that moment was my very unhappy daughter. Natasha was not the least bit interested in the candles floating on the lake. The singing was too far away to enjoy, too. The icy wind howled around us, drowning out the Lilliputian singers. I held her close to keep her warm, but not only did she not enjoy it, she was crying. Hard.

I grabbed the lambskin out of the stroller that all German moms use for added warmth, wrapping it around her tightly. She cried harder. I just couldn’t keep her warm.

Nightmarish scenarios ran through my head. Hadn’t there been a story in the paper about a husband who strapped his infant daughter on his back to go shopping and she froze to death? Natasha was doubtless communicating to me with her non-stop crying that she was cold – and probably about to freeze to death, too.

I found myself sprinting home, the stroller bumping along on the dirt path ahead of me. Natasha could have bounced clear out of the stroller, but I figured she would recover from a couple of bruises. Freezing to death is final.

This initial experience set the tone for future St. Martin’s festivals every year thereafter on November 11th. Once Natasha and my second daughter Lisa entered preschool, we were initiated into the St. Martin’s ritual. Each child decorates a paper lantern with cutouts of paper leaves or other shapes and the candle inside is lit as the children line up to form a procession, marching and singing through the dark.

Armed with a lighter, I dutifully marched alongside the girls. November 11th is invariably cold and rainy, so I always had to keep relighting the candle each time the wind blew it out. In my quest for maximum integration, I actually learned the lyrics to the songs, belting them out at the top of my lungs, looking smugly at German moms who kind of remembered the words from when they were a kid, but not really. Funny, I had the advantage of being completely clueless and having to start from scratch, rather than having a fake sense of “Oh yeah, I know that.” I knew nothing and knew I knew nothing.

Run, Bessie, run! It’s November!

This celebration originates from a monk by the same name in southern France who lived in the fourth century. He became famous for cutting his coat in two to share with a poor man in wintertime. Legend has it that he hid in a barn to escape being ordained bishop, and the cackling of the geese betrayed him. Thus having a goose dinner is also associated with St. Martin – conveniently right at the same time that they are ready for slaughter. In some places they even have a local man come galloping up on a horse, simulating St. Martin’s midnight ride, so to speak, sort of a medieval version of Paul Revere’s ride.

To commemorate this event, the preschool moms were required to bake cookies in the shape of geese. Geese!? Who on earth bakes goose-shaped cookies? As it turns out, me.

The things you discover when you raise kids – a goose cookie cutter

I scrounged around for a goose cookie recipe, casually planting the question with the other moms, who always seemed to be perfectly informed about all the complex details of childhood festivals. Nowhere in my collection of approximately 100 cookie cutters was there a goose. Reindeer, Christmas trees, gingerbread men, candy canes, pumpkins, witches – no goose. At last, one of the professional moms came to the rescue and lent me her goose cookie cutter.

When the candlelight procession was finished, we all gathered around a bonfire that symbolized the light that St. Martin brought into the world. The preschool teachers had set up a buffet on long tables with all the goodies prepared by the moms. I sauntered down the length of it to see if anyone else’s goose cookies had turned out better than mine, which had admittedly gotten a wee bit too brown. I surreptitiously sampled a few along the way.

They were all perfectly shaped and delicious. At least nobody knew which ones were mine.

The most important item on the buffet was mulled wine, hot red wine with spices. After surviving another St. Martin’s ordeal, it was well deserved.

Now that my daughters have outgrown the age where they attend these processions, these experiences allow us to immensely enjoy November 11th.

“Hey, today is St. Martin’s!” I gleefully announce to my daughters.

Broad grins spread across our faces as we burrow down deeper into the warmth of the couch, pulling up the blanket around us while we watch a movie.

“You’re right!” they respond. “And we are NOT out there in the cold!”

And just like that, sitting on the couch seems like the ultimate luxury.

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Expat chatter

An American from the Midwest, I landed in Bavaria many years ago. It's been an adventure from day one!

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