One of the joys of living here in Aachen are the many and varied festivals which occur here throughout the year. One of my personal favourites is the St Martins festival which is held every year around the 11th of November.
In Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, children make brightly coloured lanterns and parade through the streets singing songs commemorating the life of St Martin. The Saint was originally a Roman soldier who gave up military life to become a humble monk and who was known for his many acts of compassion.
We joined a St Martins parade through the Frankenburger Viertal area of Aachen. It was exciting and atmospheric walking through darkened streets, the multitude of coloured lanterns glowing a veritable spectrum of colours. Lantern designs are incredibly varied with traditional themes depicting the sun, moon and stars and modern influences ranging from Disney cartoon characters through to pop stars and inevitably Hello-Kitty.
The procession was led by a figure mounted on horseback playing the role of St Martin. Eventually everyone converged at a central point where the most famous legend about St Martin was to be re-enacted. In this legend, St Martin came across a beggar who was dying of cold in a snowstorm. Feeling pity for the poor fellow he took of his cloak and cut it into two pieces with his sword to share, thus saving the beggar’s life. These re-enactments are predictably quite short; despite this they do go to all the trouble of getting a real horse for St Martin to sit on.
The St Martins festival appears to have originated in France and spread through parts of Germany in the 1500s and then later on to Scandinavia and countries bordering the Baltic. Although the festival celebrates the life of a Christian saint, it is likely that it may have had pre-christian origins. The festival marks the beginning of winter in the agricultural calendar and was traditionally a time when feasts would have been held and when new farm labourers would have been hired. It was also the start of the forty days of advent (and penance !) leading up to Christmas.
Following the re-enactment of the St Martins legend, a huge bonfire was lit and revellers enjoyed a choice of mulled wine, hot chocolate and treats for children. Most popular was a piece of glazed fruit bread in the shape of a man (somewhat like a gingerbread man) with a pipe known as a “weckman”. At this point all the children started to run around excitedly, colliding into each other in the darkness and getting just a bit too out of hand. This was obviously great fun for kids but somewhat stressful for adults; the greatest problem being relocating them amongst the throngs of people, the bonfire smoke and the dark.
From my perspective, this is a great event for children and (to those of us from the British Isles) somehow resembles a non-spooky version of Halloween. Much to the joy of my son Kai, the local fire brigade were also in attendance, complete with an antique fire tender that kids could pretend to drive; needless to say children were soon swarming all over it. However, despite this, the Aachen firemen coped pretty well and kept their cool.
Time to go home, thus heralding the usual chorus of moaning and complaints from the 2 youngest members of our family (who had to be dragged, cajoled and carried up the road). Despite that, St Martins Fest proved to be a most atmospheric, warming and memorable evening.