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St. Martin Celebrations in Germany: Vocabulary and Traditions

By Ronda Bowen

Saint Martin Day, or Martinifest, is celebrated on the 11th of November in Germany. Learn history, legends and vocabulary about St. Martin, patron saint of the Harvest and the Poor. There is a traditional St. Martin meal, a story of St. Martin’s cloak, and a German nursery rhyme about St. Martin.

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:

Laterne, Laterne

Sonne, Mond und Sterne,

Brenne aus mein Licht, brenne aus mein Licht

Aber nur meine liebe Laterne nicht.

Lantern, Lantern,

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.

For more information on the Cologne Bread man

St. Martin's Bread

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