History and Legends
St. Martin was a Roman soldier who was baptized as an adult. He lived in the 4th century and was the founder of monasteries in and around Tours in France. He is also known as St. Martin of Tours. He later became the bishop of Tours and is the patron saint of harvest and the poor.
Legends concerning St. Martin are more abundant than historic facts.
Apparently Martin was a very kind man who did many good deeds. The most famous legend about him is that one freezing cold winter night, he crossed the path of an old beggar who was only wearing rags. Immediately, Martin cut his own cloak in two and gave one half to the beggar to prevent him from freezing to death. It turned out that the beggar was Jesus.
Another legend tells us that Martin was also very modest and humble. He was elected bishop of Tours but didn’t really think he deserved the honor. He hid in a farmyard, hoping that he wouldn’t be discovered and anointed as bishop. But the geese gave him away with the racket they made.
Which us leads to the traditions of St. Martin’s Day as it is celebrated in Germany on the 11th of November.
German Traditions on St. Martin’s Day
St. Martin’s day or Martinifest is much anticipated by children, especially in more rural areas of Germany. During the evening of 11th November, they light lanterns and walk from house to house, asking and being given, sweets or little gifts. The traditional nursery rhyme they sing is this:
Sonne, Mond und Sterne,
Brenne aus mein Licht, brenne aus mein Licht
Aber nur meine liebe Laterne nicht.
Sun, Moon and Stars,
Shine my little light, shine my light light
But don’t set fire to my lantern.
There is also an evening prayer for children which begins with the words:
St. Martin, teil den Mantel aus,
mach Schirm und Schutz für uns daraus..
St. Martin, distribute your coat,
Build shelter for us from it.
Feast and Fast
From the 4th century until approximately the end of the Middle Ages, the 11th of November marked the beginning of a 40 day fast leading up to Christmas. The last day of indulgence was celebrated with a big meal, which traditionally had a fat goose as its center piece. The goose has remained the traditional meal in Germany to this day and special Martinsgänse, mostly imported from Poland, are consumed.
The noisy geese which gave bishop Martin away also have something to do with the goose being a traditional Martinsfest meal.
By way of sweets, special St Martins pastries, much like croissants are very common and in the German city of Cologne the bakeries display a curious bread man, adorned with raisins and..smoking a ceramic pipe.
St. Martin’s Day German Vocabulary
Martinifest (n) – St. Martins Day
Heiliger (m) – saint
Bischof (m) – bishop
Zum Bischof weihen – to anoint as bishop
Mantel (m) – coat
Umhang (m) – cloak
Zerschneiden – to cut
Bettler(m) – beggar
Kloster (n) – monastery
Mönch (m) – monk
Nonne (f) – nun
Bäuerlich – rural
Feiern – to celebrate
Laternenumzug (m) – Lantern parade
Kinder(f) – children
Festtagsbraten (m)– Sunday roast
Gans (f)– goose
Gänse (pl) – geese
Bauernhof (d) – farm yard
Fastenzeit (f)– fast (lent)
Weihnachten – Christmas
Mittelalter (n) – Middle Ages
Süssigkeiten – sweets
Mahlzeit (f) – meal
Note: the word Mahlzeit is also often used as a midday greeting.
Brot (n) – bread
Bäckerei (f) – backery
Backen – to bake