Wednesday was a very special day in Trier. Beginning at 11:11 (a.m.) Karneval was celebrated. It was also the birthday of two friends of mine who are exchange students here. And it was St. Martin’s Day. Who is St. Martin?
St. Martin was a good man who lived a long time ago. He was kind and selfless, and always giving to the poor, sometimes even giving the clothes off his own back. There is one story of a cold, blustery winter’s night on which St. Martin, seeing a cold beggar on the street, cut his own robe (for Martin was a Roman soldier) in half and gave it to the man, who would have surely died in the freezing snow. St. Martin also fed the homeless and cold, especially during the winter. He would make them warm sugar-covered bread pastries in the shapes of pretzels. Today these are called either “Zuckerbretzel” (Sugar-pretzel) or “St. Martin’s-bretzel”.
It is in honor of this man and in remembrance of what he did for the poor that Germans (especially German children in pre- and elementary school) celebrate his life on his name day (in accordance with the Catholic church) with celebration.
My daughter’s school had such a celebration. At five, we gathered before her school with all the other children and their parents, siblings, etc. It’s a very big family tradition here in Trier. The children had spent two days the week before creating their own lanterns, which were then lit (by LED lights) and carried through the streets. A man dressed in a red robe and Roman soldier’s helmet riding on horseback arrived. He was none other than St. Martin himself!, at least to the children, and it was he who led the parade through the little section of town, around a lake, and back again. Everyone followed, singing songs primarily about the lanterns. I was towards the front of the line, which stretched for about a quarter of a mile, and was fortunate to be right in front of a group of women singing a few of the St. Martin’s songs. They were very sweet, and very sing-songy, and it wasn’t long before I had them stuck in my head. Here’s the chorus from one of my favorites:
“Ich geh mit meine Lanterne und meine Lanterne mit mir
Dort oben leuchten die Sterne und unten leuchten wir
Lanternlicht, verlösch mir nicht
Rabimmel, rabammel, rabum bum bum”
We made our way back to the school, where a bonfire and snacks had been laid out for us. There were “St. Martins-brezeln” and hot chocolate for the children and the adults. The children got to eat and drink free, but the adults had to pay. So I just snuck a few bites of my daughter’s treat. We made our way to the crowded bonfire, where everyone tried to warm up some while enjoying their tasty treats. Most of the kids were enthralled by the fire, and I must say I have never seen quite such a well-constructed fire in my life. Instead of using sticks or limbs from trees, the fire was constructed of 2x4s and cardboard set up in the traditional bonfire shape. The kids eventually got restless, and, having finished their treats, ran off to play. The adults lingered a little longer, talking and enjoying the fire, but the evening drew rather quickly to a close, as it was cold and dark.
Another interesting thing about St. Martin’s Day is that it marks the beginning of Advent, and a time of fasting for the old church. I have no authority to say if this is still so in the new church. I do know, however, that Advent used to be called “the forty days of St. Martin” or, directly “Quadragesima Sancti Martini”, and St. Martin’s Day was a day of great feasting before the fasting began.
St. Martin’s Day began in France, but the custom spread to Germany centuries ago. And, as Trier was at one point a part of France, it is no wonder that it is so widely celebrated here.
I’m so very excited that I got to celebrate this part of German culture that isn’t often presented to exchange students. I love that, in having a daughter at a German preschool, I get to see a little bit of what growing up in Germany is like, if only for a year, if only second-hand, and if only through the customs of my three-year-old’s school. I feel so fortunate in having these opportunities.
And after the St. Martinsfest my daughter and I went to the birthday celebration of my two friends. I’ve found such a fantastic group of friends who tries so frequently to include me in their plans, indeed, sometimes going out of their way to turn plans into something I can participate in (and my daughter, too), that I’ve been able to enjoy the college experience as much as the parenting one.
But now it’s off to join the college experience again by tackling that huge pile of papers that’s piled up for me to read by next Tuesday. –Not all of the experience is as much fun, though it *is* just as rewarding.