In procession, often following St. Martin in a Roman soldier's uniform and riding "Shimmel" his white horse, they carry illuminated, usually handmade, decorated paper lanterns, and sing centuries old traditional songs including:
Ich Geh' Mit Meiner Laterne. (You can hear the whole song here)
Ich geh' mit meiner Laterne
Und meine Laterne mit mir.
Da oben leuchten die Sterne
und unten da leuchten wir.
I'm walking with my lantern
and my lantern walks with me.
There above, the stars shine,
And we shine here below.
But who was St. Martin? Born around 316 AD, he was the son of a Tribune in a Roman army unit in present day Hungary and had to join the Roman army when he was 15. The legend is that three years later, while riding through the gates of Amiens in a snowstorm, he saw a starving beggar with little to protect him from the icy temperature, so cut his cloak in two with his sword. Giving one half to the freezing man.
As he slept that night St. Martin had a dream in which Christ appeared to him as the beggar, saying to the angels surrounding him:
"Here is Martin, the Roman soldier who is not baptized, he clothed me".
Not long after this dream Martin decided a soldier's life of fighting and killing was not what he wanted; he became a baptized Christian and successful missionary, and the remains of his cloak, in Latin "cappa", was kept as a sacred relic in a building known as a "cappella".
The origin of our present day words "chaplain" and "chapel".
Unlike saints before him St. Martin was not a martyr, and over the years became the patron saint of quite a mixture including: France, Beggars, Soldiers, Innkeepers, Alcoholics, Winegrowers, Tailors, Equestrians, Animals, and Geese.
A much loved and exemplary man, until his death from old age in November 397 AD he lived a simple compassionate life. Despite against his wishes being made the Bishop of Tours in Gaul, which is now France.
One of the legends is that it was the cries of geese in a barn, where he was hiding from those who wanted him to accept the Tours bishopric, which led to his being found.
The first goose of the season, a St. Martin's goose, die Martinsgans, has been the day's traditional meal for centuries. Not through any vendetta St. Martin had against the cackling geese who had supposedly given away his hiding place, but because the geese were ready for harvesting. Their feathers useful for winter pillows and bed covers, and the fat suitable for everything from soothing seasonal chilblains and sore throats to cooking.
Despite most Protestant churches not recognizing saints, for generations St. Martin's colorful lantern procession tradition has been widespread throughout Protestant areas of Germany. Most processions end alongside a large bonfire, the lanterns no longer glowing unless battery powered or fed with a steady supply of tea lights or fresh candles, but with the songs still ringing out through the air.
And there a St. Martin Weckmann, a sweet yeast dough "Bread Man" with raisin eyes and a clay pipe, together with an inviting cup of hot chocolate, or some Gluewein, heated mulled wine for the grownups, are waiting to warm up a cool November night. Some children go around in small groups and sing from door to door, and are rewarded for the originality and attractiveness of their lanterns, as well of course of their singing, with fruit, nuts and candy among other treats.
Beginning in France the St. Martin's Day tradition spread across Europe and, as the Christian Church set Christian holidays and celebrations at the same times as former pagan festivities, it took the place of pagan early winter light and fertility festivities. Celebrating the end of the harvest and winter seeding season and beginning of winter.
This was the time when many animals were slaughtered, so these were real feasts.
St. Martin did die on November 8 and was buried on the 11th. The date Martinmas, the celebration of his life, begins at the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, 11:11 at 11:11 a.m., when many people attend the church services held in his honor.
It is just one of Germany's customs and traditions that take place that day, as at exactly the same time the preparations for the following year's Karnaval, Fasching or Fastnacht,, the name depending on the region, officially begin.
For the rest of Europe it marks Armistice or Remembrance Day, with a two-minute silence in memory of those who died fighting wars and commemorating the exact moment the first world war's cease fire took effect; while in the USA it is Veterans Day.
A St. Martin's Day tradition with few devotees these days is the strict Advent Fast which used to begin the next day, making it the last chance to have a rich and hearty meal for the forty days leading to Christmas.
But for generations of happy children St. Martin's Day and November 11 brings to an end weeks of excited anticipation, lantern making and Weckmann baking, with a colorful celebration that brightens those first dark winter evenings.
El Greco oil on linen painting of Saint Martin and the Beggar, currently in National Gallery of German Art, Washington DC, St. Martin Procession Bonfire, photo bergengruen.net, "Ich geh' mit mein Laterne" clip - Muenchenmedia