Thursday, November 10, 2005

November 11 - A Martini Celebration


Cover of
Mein erstes
Buch von
Sankt Martin
Text by Thomas Erne
Pictures by Susanne Kraus
Verlag Herder, 2001



November 11 is Veterans Day here in the U.S, a holiday for acknowledging the sacrifices made by our soldiers and to remind us of their bravery.

Germany and Austria also celebrate on November 11 but it is a different kind of holiday. It is a remembrance of Saint Martin of Tours and is known as Martinstag or Martini.

Saint Martin of Tours is not a saint that we here in the US associate with any kind of festival or custom. So when my genial landlord, Hans Dieter Jung, took me on a short tour of some of the small villages near Saarburg, I wasn't prepared for a lesson on unusual customs in the Rheinland. We had stopped at Hofgut Serrig, a farming community where natural farming and animal husbandry is practiced by workers with disabilities. As we passed a field of fat geese, Herr Jung said they wouldn’t be around much longer because it was almost Martini. “What is martini?” I asked, picturing a stemmed glass, wide rimmed, with a couple of olives. He explained that November 11 is Saint Martin’s Day or Martini. It is the time when geese lose their heads, literally. That didn’t seem a very nice way to celebrate a saint’s feast day but I didn’t say that – mostly because I couldn’t figure out how to put that thought into German.

With the help of my English speaking relative Edeltrud Heiser who lives in Trier, and some research on my own, I soon learned much more about St. Martin and the significance of this holiday which is a combination of our own celebrations of Halloween and Thanksgiving. I also found out why geese are so associated with this feast day. (Edeltrud gave me the gift of the children's book pictured above, "My First Book of Saint Martin")

St. Martin was born in about 336, the son of a Roman soldier. He too became a soldier in the Roman cavalry. One day a beggar approached Martin, begging for alms. Since he had nothing to give him, Martin drew his sword and cut his cloak in half. A legend grew that the beggar was Christ and that this caused Martin’s conversion to Christianity. As word of his holiness grew, the pope sent messengers to him, naming him Bishop of Tours. Martin, feeling unworthy, ran away and hid in a stable among a flock of geese. But the geese, recognizing his virtues, gave him away by cackling loudly. One could draw the conclusion that Saint Martin took his revenge on them, silencing them each year on his feast day.

A more practical explanation is that on the feast of St. Martin, November 11, it was the time of slaughter for the farm animals, including the geese. Farmers could ill afford to feed all of their poultry during the winter months when the time for food foraging in the woodlots and pastures was ended. It was also the time that taxes were due, and a fat goose or two to the landlord was, in many places, accepted as payment in kind. And if a family could afford to do so, a roast goose was often the holiday fare on Martini. According to an article called ""Eat a fat goose on St. Martin's Day"" in Der Blumenbaum, Nov/Dec. 2002, many restaurants in Germany and Austria still feature Martinsgans (Martin goose) on their menus in late autumn and especially on St. Martin's Day.

The Blumenbaum article went on to say that St. Martin's Day was an important date for shepherds, who considered St. Martin to be their patron saint. His day coincided with the date that their contracts ended. At this time they could bargain for better terms for the coming year of service. By custom, they would blow their horns until their masters arrived to meet with them, at which time the masters were presented with a decorated branch or Martinsgerte. Then the shepherds would recite rhymes for which they received presents.

Saint Martin's day was not just for the shepherds or the landlords. It marked the coming of winter; now people could celebrate the end of harvesting and wine making and look forward to rest from their heaviest labors. For workers and the poor it was a time when they had a chance to enjoy some of the bounty of the harvest. And it would be the last celebration before the solemn season of Advent and the fasting which would not end until Christmas.

The little children would parade through the villages in the evening of St. Martin’s Day, carrying hollowed out pumpkins or turnips with bizarre carved faces. It was customary for them to sing St. Martin songs or “Martinslieder” and recite rhymes in return for small presents. The lantern procession is still observed today but now there are paper lanterns in various shapes and sizes. The children sing a St. Martin's Day song such as this:

"I go with my lantern
And my lantern goes with me.
Up above the stars are shining,
Down here we're shining.
The rooster, he crows; the cat meows.
Rabimmel, rabammel, rabum.
The rooster, he crows; the cat meows.
Rabimmel, rabammel, rabum."

"I go with my lantern
And my lantern goes with me.
Up above the stars are shining,
Down here we're shining.
St. Martin, he marches on.
Rabimmel, rabammel, rabum.
St. Martin, he marches on.
Rabimmel, rabammel, rabum."

"I go with my lantern
And my lantern goes with me.
Up above the stars are shining,
Down here we're shining.
Lantern light, don't go out on me!
Rabimmel, rabammel, rabum.
Lantern light, don't go out on me!
Rabimmel, rabammel, rabum."

"I go with my lantern
And my lantern goes with me.
Up above the stars are shining,
Down here we're shining.
A sea of light in honor of Martin.
Rabimmel, rabammel, rabum.
A sea of light in honor of Martin.
Rabimmel, rabammel, rabum."

"I go with my lantern
And my lantern goes with me.
Up above the stars are shining,
Down here we're shining.
My light is out,
Rabimmel, rabammel, rabum.
We're going home,
Rabimmel, rabammel, rabum."

Happy St. Martin's Day to those of you who read this on November 11!

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