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 November 11th, St. Martin’s, a traditional fall festival in Germany.
This was a great opportunity to introduce my ten-month old daughter Natalie 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 at preschool, 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 just like hymns in church, and even singing part of the refrain: “Sankt Martin, Sankt Martin…” As long as you’re not deaf, you’d pick up on that one.
But at the time I was oblivious to these details. The only thing that mattered to me at that moment was my very unhappy daughter. Natalie was not the least bit interested in the candles floating on the lake. 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 even 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 hapless husband who strapped his infant daughter to his back to go shopping, ignoring her crying, and she froze to death? Natalie 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, bumping the stroller along on the dirt path ahead of me, so furiously that Natalie could have bounced out of it and onto the hard ground. But I figured she would recover from a couple of bruises, whereas freezing to death tends to be final.
This initial experience set the tone for future St. Martin’s festivals every year. Once Natalie and my younger daughter Alexandra 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, leaving the walls of the lantern translucent. Then the candle inside is lit as the children line up to form a procession, marching along through the dark, holding their lanterns and singing.
Armed with a lighter, I dutifully marched alongside the girls. November 11th is invariably cold, rainy, and especially windy, so I always had to keep relighting the candle each time a gust of wind blew it out. In my quest for maximum integration into German culture, I had 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.
The celebration of St. Martin 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 from his persecutors, but the cackling of the geese betrayed him. Thus a goose dinner is associated with St. Martin—conveniently right at the time that they are ready for slaughter.
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.
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 lantern procession was finished, we all gathered around a bonfire. A buffet was set up 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. Looking around to be sure that no one was watching me, I deposited my cookies in the middle of the others, all perfectly shaped and golden brown. But that was OK. I had ensured that mine were anonymous, so nobody could pin anything on me.
I quickly passed by the cookies on to a far more important item on the buffet: mulled wine, or hot spiced red wine. After surviving another St. Martin’s ordeal, it was well deserved.
My daughters have long since outgrown the age where they attend these processions, the memory of them gives us a great gift: they allow us to immensely enjoy November 11th.
“Hey, today is St. Martin’s!” I gleefully announce.
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.
“And we are NOT out there in the cold!” they respond.
Just like that, sitting on the couch is the ultimate luxury.