Our first November in Basel, my children participated in a lantern walk at their school in celebration of St. Martin. It was a heart warming way for our school community to come together - our children guided us along with their homemade lanterns, sang a song in German and then we enjoyed some warm drinks and bread around a fire. And it left me wondering, just who is St. Martin and why are we celebrating him?
St. Martin depicted on the Münster in Basel. It's southern tower is also named after the Saint.
St. Martin - From Soldier to Bishop to Saint
St. Martin was a Roman soldier who became a monk, and ultimately, a bishop in Tours, France. Unusually, at the age of ten he converted to Christianity, which at the time, was still a minority religion. Coming from a military family it was expected that he would serve in the army. And he did this until, as a believer of Christ and not willing to fight, he asked to be released. After his military service, he became a missionary and monk before being named the bishop of Tours in 371. St. Martin died on November 8, 397 and was buried three days later on November 11 (now known as St. Martin's Day).
St. Martin was celebrated for his kindness, simplicity and modesty and there are many stories that bring color to these claims. Legend has it that when he was a young soldier he came across a poor man who was barely clothed. St. Martin cut off half of his cloak and gave it to the man. Later, St. Martin dreamt that Jesus came to him and thanked him and, when he woke, his cloak was whole again.
In another legend, when he heard that he was to become a bishop, St. Martin hid among geese because he thought he was unworthy of the role. Alas, the cackling of the geese gave him away, which became the reason why goose is featured in many St. Martin's Day feasts.
Another legend tells of a time when St. Martin lost his donkey one dark night and the village children went looking for it by lantern. Hence, the lantern walk at my children's school.
Celebrations of St. Martin originated in France and spread across Europe taking different forms from lantern walks to feasts to trick or treating like rituals. In the Christian calendar it is a feast day to celebrate the end of autumn, much like the North American Thanksgiving. In some parts of Europe, lantern walks include children going house to house asking for sweets and is often referred to as Old Halloween.
As with many Christian holidays, St. Martin's Day ties into older, pagan celebrations that were held at the same time of year, in this case, celebrating the end of the harvest and beginning of winter.
Want to Know More?
I found a few good resources that provided a lot more information on St. Martin and the ways he is celebrated today. In case you want to know more check out:
The Life of St. Martin: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Martin-of-Tours
Various St. Martin's Day traditions: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._Martin%27s_Day
St. Martin and the Munster Cathedral: https://altbasel.ch/fragen/st.martin_basler_muenster.html
Photo Credit: Ad Meskens