Laternelaufen: Fake Saints, Cakes and Lego Sets
As my wife and I headed out on Friday night, we happened to pass a harried looking mother and her two children. She was cajoling them along the street as quickly as possible, but was continually thwarted by her charges. At every step they would stop to admire the lanterns they carried, suspended from the end of a stick and lit by a single candle. The lanterns themselves were clearly homemade, a loose looking stick frame plastered in every conceivable colour of tissue paper. They were clearly quite pleased with their creations, so much so they were more than willing to incur their mother’s wrath in order to stare at the candle light. Before I could say anything, my wife made cooing noises and declared the small children “Suß” and began to wax lyrical about how much she enjoyed Laternelaufen.
Lanternelaufen is in part a celebration of St.Martin’s day, where children make their own lanterns and then join in a night time walk, lit only by a single candle shining through layers and layers of construction paper. It is not necessarily a national celebration, but is one that is frequently found in Catholic regions of the West and South of Germany It is usually a precursor to more formal celebrations of St.Martin’s Day proper, where it is not uncommon to see parades headed by the titular St Martin.
As the son of an Anglican vicar and regular attendee of Sunday school I must confess that until I moved to Germany I had no idea who St Martin was. I may have simply missed the class when he was mentioned, but all I really remember of my religious education was the endless colouring in of loaves and fishes or attempts at drawing the good Samaritan, who for some reason I believed resembled a Ninja Turtle. As a child, I fiercely argued that most bible stories could benefit from the inclusion of reptiles well versed in the mysterious martial arts of feudal Japan. Although I would no longer consider myself an active Anglican, I do still maintain my position that the Jesus’s parables are best illustrated with Saturday morning cartoon characters.
Now that I live in Germany, and especially Bavaria, I am keenly aware of most of the important religious holidays that are celebrated throughout the year. This is not because of any Damascus moment, but because they also coincide with most Bavarian public holidays. Even without a public holiday, celebration of Saint’s days is still part of German life and not only reserved for the rock and roll Saints like St Martin.
Name days are another way people celebrate the lives of the Saintly masses. Should you be lucky enough to be named after a Saint, you basically have a second birthday. Family and friends may well give you gifts and cards, to celebrate the fact that you happen to share a name with a long dead religious icon. My wife has her name day in a few weeks and already her family have begun to ask what she would like to receive. Despite my suggestions of a car, Nerf guns or The Wire box set, I suspect my wife will opt for a scarf of some kind or some gloves, something practical. Call me immature, but when someone offers to buy you a present, it is surely poor form to request something practical. It seems like a waste, when there are so many Lego sets one could get instead.
Although my wife does not know it yet, I plan to name our child after as many different Saints as possible. This plan may take some time to mature, but once my progeny reaches the right age, I will be able to benefit from an inexhaustible supply of cool action figures. Some parents attempt to live their sporting dreams through their children, I intend to use mine to finally acquire a complete set of Transformers and He-Man with added battle damage.
Nefarious plans to bankrupt my family via name day gifts aside, St Martin’s day is not only celebrated with lantern processions, but sometimes with a bonfire. In certain areas of Germany, children are given specially made Martinshörnchen that either represent the hooves of the horse that St Martin rode or possibly the bridle of said horse. In other areas, children are given Stutenkerl which are more commonly connected with my own saintly namesake, St Nicholas.
This is where I begin to wonder about St Martin. Depending where you are in Germany, St Martin is either a Roman centurion or a kindly, white bearded man, dressed in the robes of a bishop. Here we have a famous saint, known for being generous and who happens to have a flowing white beard. I may sound like a bit of a conspiracy theorist, but I am fairly sure St Martin is trying to muscle his way into Christmas and intends on replacing St Nicholas as the go to festive saint. Either that or St Nicholas is attempting to get double Christianity points by pretending to be two different people. Not satisfied with being the face of Coke Cola, old St Nick wants a piece of the November market too. I mean, if I’m wrong, how come we never see them together at the same time?
For many Germans, like my wife, seeing children carrying homemade lanterns is a reminder of their own childhood and although it has little resonance for me, it is clearly an important formative experience. Obviously, something is nefarious going on, but until I find out the truth, Germany will continue to celebrate the lives of famous saints.