We went out the door, wrapped in coats and scarves, with our paper lanterns lit. The streets were dark, but ahead of us, we could make out the shadows of other children and their parents, their faces softly illuminated by their own lanterns hung on sticks. The lanterns swayed gently as we walked. We went up the street, up the long hill, through the little Bavarian town we were temporarily calling home. It was the eve of Martinstag, November 10, and our neighbors who lived in the flat below ours had invited us to come along.

It wasn't a solemn ritual. There was laughter and chatter, an air of excitement. On the main street, a crowd gathered on either side, the lanterns brightening the darkness. A parade advanced and thundered down the street, roaring with music, vehicles decorated like ships, horses, and other modes of travel. Costumed celebrants called out, "Halloo!" a traditional battle cry, and tossed out candy that we scrambled for and stuffed into sacks.

At its roots, Martinstag is a holiday of thanksgiving, celebrating the last harvest before winter's advance. It feels something like a less-spooky Halloween or a less-raucous Carnival. Though Christianized, it's a holiday with ancient roots, celebrated throughout much of Europe.

Other elements of Martinstag are bonfires, festive meals with goose as the main course, the singing of Martin songs, and drinking wine. Wine and geese are ready for harvesting at this time, so they are natural elements of the feast day. Catholic folklore has knitted St. Martin to them: once, St. Martin was being pursued by church officials, who were trying to ordain him as bishop. He hid from them in a goose pen, and the geese gave him away with their cackling. He is also credited with the spread of viticulture in the Touraine region -- especially the cultivation of my favorite white varietal, Chenin Blanc.

In neighboring Switzerland, the Räbeliechtliumzug (the "raven light parade") occurs at the same time. Switzerland is a culturally diverse country, with strong, enduring connections to their various Celtic, Germanic, and Italian roots. The Celtic influence remains strong even in the eastern German Swiss cantons from which some of my ancestors (on my dad's paternal side) immigrated. While southern Germans use paper lanterns, the German Swiss carve turnips with images of the sun, moon, and stars, and illuminate them. This is tellingly similar to the British and Irish tradition of carving faces onto turnips for Samhain and Halloween. Pumpkins, being native to North America, became the vessels of choice much later.

A Swiss site states that "the origin of the Räbenlichter [raven lights] is found in the faith of the Celts and Romans, who drove away the spirits of the dead during the dark season." Light has long been used to deter chthonic spirits that might bring illness and death to the living -- both practically (as both fire and sunlight are microbe-destroying purifiers) and symbolically (warding against the uncertainty of the night and the grave, both marked by darkness that hinders sight-dependent humans). This is probably also the reason for the bonfires and paper lanterns in southern Germany, and overall the ancient source of these holidays (along with the expression of gratitude for a bountiful growing season).

While not generally well known in the U.S., Martinstag is celebrated in Waldorf schools (which have a German heritage, being founded in Stuttgart), where they hold lantern parades while singing Martinstag songs. One of these songs is called "Wild Geese":

High and blue the sky

trees are very tall

wild geese flying seem so small

see on silent wings in flocks they go
never parting from a single row


we go through the land

like a wild geese band

brothers in one flight are we


clear and dark the night

stars are very bright

lantern shining seems so small

see in single file we walk along


singing joyfully our lantern song


we go through the land

like a wild geese band
sisters in one light are we


This song and other Martin songs bring to life, for me, the old feelings and roots of the holiday that has persisted through adaptation. Geese and other water birds are strongly associated with goddesses of water, healing, and fertility across the world. Their flight from northern climes is a symbol of the end of the fertile season; it's almost as if the flocks bear it away with them, leaving the land cold and dormant, in a state of near-death. The lanterns, then, are a message of hope and faith in times of want and struggle -- relevant among all peoples -- as well as a commitment to tend the smaller flames (the candle, the bonfire, the hearth fire, the living inner flame within each person and in each vital community) until the greater flame of the sun draws near again, waking the world from its months-long sleep.


While another name for Martinstag is Old Halloween, there is much about Martinstag that reminds me of American Thanksgiving. In many ways, they are sister holidays, and the elder provides a context for the American holiday that otherwise seems disconnected from the other harvest holidays of our ancestors. We, too, have a parade -- a national one broadcasted every Thanksgiving morning from New York City. Instead of goose, we eat turkey -- a native bird that is likewise hunted in late fall. While not necessarily a widespread tradition, many also drink wine, including mulled wine (called Glühwein in Germany), during Thanksgiving dinner. I'm not aware of any Thanksgiving songs or bonfires, but they would certainly be appropriate and could be easily incorporated into extant traditions. Martin songs like the one above could take their place here or be referred to for inspiration.


I think there's value in paganizing (or repaganizing) the holidays already built into our cultures. Whether or not they have proven ancient pagan origins, and no matter how much they may have been lacquered by Christianity, they still have cores that are relevant to modern pagans and animists -- ties to the seasons, spirits of nature and the household, and our ancestors -- that are meaningful to us and worth honoring. The oldest traditions have survived by evolution during changing times -- why not turn the wheel again toward our own faiths?


Image via Rickenbach.ch