(explanations courtesy of Mama Lisa’s website – an absolutely enormous collection of songs, nursery rhymes and traditions for children around the world.)
What is the Lantern Walk all about?
Pre-Christianity, Pagans in Europe celebrated a festival of light and fertility in the early winter, mid-November.
In Christian times, November 11th is celebrated in parts of Belgium, Holland, Netherlands, Austria, Germany, France, Poland, Latvia and Estonia, and commemorates the day St. Martin was buried.
As people converted to Christianity, they did not want to give up their previous holidays and festivals, and so traditions from these earlier pagan festivals became mixed up with legends about the life of the saint.
The combination led to the many wonderful traditions of today.
So, who was Saint Martin?
When St. Martin was a young man, he was a soldier. Legend has it that one day in the winter, while on horseback, he came upon a poor man, barely clothed. St. Martin took out his sword and cut his military cloak in half. He gave one half to the poor man for warmth.
Later he had a dream in which Jesus was wearing the half cloak. Jesus said to him, “As you have clothed the poor, so have you clothed me. Thank you.” When St. Martin woke up the robe was in one piece again. After that dream he decided to become baptized. Later he quit being a soldier and became a monk.
St. Martin was famous for his kindness, modesty and simplicity. It is said his followers loved him so much that they insisted he become bishop of Tours. He felt unworthy of the honour, and so, when they came to appoint him, he hid in a barn filled with geese. When his pursuers approached, the geese began to cackle, so he killed one of the geese, on the spot, to quiet it. Later that night it was eaten for dinner. People all over Europe still celebrate the Saint’s day by eating geese. (Although it could also be argued the real reason geese are eaten at this time of year is that farmers couldn’t afford to feed too many geese over the winter so they would slaughter them at harvest time.)
After St. Martin became the bishop, many people in northern France and parts of Belgium converted to Christianity.
How is the Lantern Walk / St Martin’s Day celebrated in Europe these days?
These days, the story is remembered by the tradition of children parading after dark, carrying lanterns and singing songs, following a person on horseback who pretends to be St. Martin.
In Europe, the parade is often ended with a bonfire. The lanterns and bonfire seem to be a remnant from the old pagan festivals of light.
In some places, the children go door to door, carolling with their lanterns. They’re given treats or money.
In Sweden, St. Martin’s Day is mainly the celebration of the goose – they’ve let go of all the other traditions. They cook goose and make a black soup out of the remains.
In some part of east Flanders, in Belgium, there’s another interesting tradition: St. Martin comes in the middle of the night of the 10th to the 11th of November (instead of St. Nicholas in December) and leaves children presents.
St. Martin’s Day is one of the happiest of European holidays! It’s enjoyed by everyone. (Except the geese…)
What’s the story with the St Martin’s rolls / buns, and the children with lanterns?
According to French legend, Saint Martin was journeying one very dark night with his donkey. The animal took off into the dunes without him, much to his chagrin. The children in the town were given lanterns to help find St. Martin’s donkey. They quickly found it, and paraded back with the donkey and their lanterns in a festive mood. To thank them, St. Martin turned the donkey’s droppings into rolls, to everyone’s delight! Nowadays, around St. Martin’s day you can find volaerens (special buns named after the word for droppings in Flemish) in bakeries all around Dunkerque and other parts of France. (As you can imagine, the recipe we use today is a lot more edible to the one Saint Martin used!)
What are all the songs people are singing?
There are loads of song associated with the lantern walk and Saint Martin’s day. We have a few favourite songs we often sing.