Olli’s Saturday School – Martinsgans

Welcome class!

[akward pause]

Oh. Okay. Well, I hope everyone recuperated after Halloween, which as you should remember, is not quite such a big deal in Germany.

We do have our own festivities in November, though.

There’s St. Martin’s Day on November 11th. It’s not as big as Halloween in the US, not as cheerful and generally very different.

Customs vary throught Europe. Since St. Martin’s Day is not a public holiday, the festivities usually center around the weekend closest to the day.

The legend
In short,  Martin was an unbaptized Roman soldier who cut his cloak in half to give to a beggar. The night after he has a vision of it having been Jesus Christ and he turned to religion and was reluctantly made a bishop. In fact he hid in a goosepen to avoid this, and the cackling geese betrayed him.

The customs
In Germany there are processions on St. Martin’s Eve.
In my home village (and many other places as well) the kids from kindergarten and elementary school prepare for this Martinszug by making Laternen from paper and transparent cardboard. Lanterns can also be bought around that time, but nothing beats selfmade, eh?
The Martinszug or Martinsumzug (Zug = Train, Umzug = Prozession) is often also called Laternenzug on account of these Lanterns. Taking part in the Procession carrying a lantern is also called Laternelaufen (laufen = walking/going).

The procession is usually led or followed by a man dressed as a Roman centurion riding on a horse, symbolising St. Martin, and accompagnied by a local orchestra or marching band, playing Martinslieder (St. Martin’s Songs) to be sung along by the children. The best part is when the kids continue singing after the band stops. The kids lose track of the number of verses and just start over, the band stopped and everything falls apart. Musically.

The procession usually ends at the Martinsfeuer, a big bonfire, where everyone warms up at the fire, enjoys large, soft sugary pretzels, the so-called Martinsbrezel and hot cocoa or mulled wine for the grown-ups.
By the way, the German word for mulled wine is Glühwein which translates to glow-wine.

Usually there also is a big raffle for charity, people can win enourmous pretzels, random things donated from local business and of course a Martinsgans. A Martin’s goose. When I was a kid those were actual live geese that also were carried along with the procession. I once won one of these. I was walking along with the procession, carrying along my lantern when my mom shouted from the side of the street: “YOU WON A GOOSE!”
Me: “Yeah, sure.”
What can I say? I did! Thankfully our neighbour back then kept chickens and had an unused coop where it could stay, we’d pay for food and stuff. It wasn’t happy I guess, didn’t eat a lot and wasn’t exactly a pet you could play with, despite my sister and me visiting often to feed salad and stuff to it.
It also didn’t taste very well when we ate it at christmas. Very tough and dry.1

A couple of years later they stopped raffling off live geese because it was inconvenient for those who won and stressful for the geese. Deep-frozen was the best solution for all involved parties, I guess.

Here’s a video of a typical Martinszug with band, centurion on a horse, lanterns the bonfire and a retelling of the legend of St. Martin…enjoy!

  1. true story []