Wednesday, November 11, 2015

German traditions make me cry

I realised this morning that it is Saint Martin's Day (11th November). I couldn't believe I hadn't thought about it until now. 

We lived in Bad Münstereifel in Germany for seven wonderful years while the children were small, and we took part in the Saint Martin's festivities many times. I liked Karneval, with its costume parades and sweetie-throwing, very much indeed, but Saint Martin was my favourite event of the German calendar. The centrepiece of the celebration was always a torch-lit procession around the town, which was an unbelievably picturesque event, what with the dancing flames and the beautiful old half-timbered houses. For several weeks before the procession, all the kindergarten and primary school children would be feverishly at work making lanterns to carry. In the olden days, these would have had actual flames inside, but modern ones have a little light bulb. Everyone would gather in the Klosterplatz, a square near the church, and there was always a brass band playing the traditional St. Martin songs, such as Sankt Martin ritt durch Schnee und Wind and Ich gehe mit meiner Laterne. I still can't hear those tunes without welling up! Then "Saint Martin" would ride into the square on a horse - a very calm, good-natured horse, considering all the lights and loud noises. He would lead the procession around the town centre and all the children would follow with their lanterns. The brass band would play and we would all sing the songs as we walked. When we got back to the square, there would be a huge bonfire attended by the local fire brigade (just in case). Then "Saint Martin" and an actor dressed as a beggar would act out the legend of the saint, a Roman soldier who took pity on a beggarman freezing in the snow and gave him half his warm cloak to wear. The children always loved the bit where Saint Martin took out his sword and cut the cloak in half. Afterwards, all the children got a bun with big chunks of sugar on it. 

We all have our own special memories of the Saint Martin's procession. This is my favourite: one year when our son was too tiny to walk around, my husband carried him. When we got to the Catholic old people's home, a number of the old people were at the door watching, and with them was a small group of nuns. On impulse I whispered to my son that he should blow them a kiss. He was, I must say, a remarkably good-humoured toddler, so he did as he was asked, and I was amused to see all the nuns sighing over his adorable cuteness! I bet he hates to be reminded of that, now he's a whopping great teenager... 

My daughter's keenest memory is quite different. The year she was in the German fourth grade, the top year of primary school, I gave her her first mobile phone to take with her on the procession, in case she got lost or couldn't find us afterwards. She was thrilled. In fact I doubt the beggarman was more thrilled with his half-a-cloak. 

When we left Germany, I always swore that I would go back for Saint Martin's Day. But in 7 years I have only ever managed it once, mainly because of the cost of flying everyone back. It has gradually ceased to loom so large in my mental calendar, while Hallowe'en and Guy Fawkes Night have become more prominent. But whenever I think about it, I still wish I could be there, walking over the worn cobblestones and singing along with the brass band. I listened to some of the traditional songs this morning on YouTube and found myself crying a bit, just from nostalgia. 

I always knew we would have to leave Bad Münstereifel one day. We went there for 2 years, after all, and stayed for 7, but there was no way of stringing it out forever! But I'm pleased to say that like so many of the other aspects of our life there, the Saint Martin's procession is described in my first novel, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden. Of course, I've added a dark twist to it - someone vanishes during the procession! But it's all there, right down to the fact that if you walk right behind the horse you have to watch where you step...

Here's a short excerpt:

It was almost time for the procession to begin. The local brass band, resplendent in hunting-green uniforms and peaked caps, were assembling at the corner of the square, hoisting trombones and trumpets and horns, which glittered in the light of the lanterns and torches. Someone tried out the opening notes of one of the songs, a song so familiar that the words formed themselves inside my head as I listened: Sankt Martin, Sankt Martin, Sankt Martin ritt durch Schnee und Wind . . . It finished with a squeak which sent a ripple of laughter through the crowd.
Someone from the council had climbed the steps at the side of the square and was talking inaudibly into a loudhailer. Then we heard a clatter of hooves on the cobblestones and St Martin rode into the square.
Of course, all of the spectators except the very youngest knew that St Martin was really someone from the town, dressed up in a red velvet cloak and Roman helmet; in fact my parents even knew the family who lent the horse. But there was always something magical about St Martin; he was real in a way that Sankt Nikolaus and the Easter Bunny weren’t. For one thing, he was undeniably solid, and so was the horse: if you followed too closely behind it you had to look where you stepped.
As we watched, St Martin wheeled the horse round and began to ride slowly out of the south side of the square, the crimson cloak undulating on the horse’s hindquarters as it moved, the torchlight making the great golden helmet glitter. The band fell in behind him, and struck up with the first bars of ‘Ich gehe mit meiner Laterne’, the signal for the schoolchildren to follow. As the rest of us surged forward, I could see Frau Eichen counting the children again.
‘Can I go on ahead?’ I asked my mother hopefully, seeing that she was making woefully slow progress with Sebastian in his buggy. I was afraid we would be stuck right at the back, where we could hardly hear the band, and we would be last back into the square to see the bonfire.
She shook her head. ‘I don’t think that’s a good idea, Pia.’ I didn’t bother to ask why.
‘I’ll go with her,’ said my father, turning up his collar. He looked at me sternly. ‘And stay where I can see you, Pia. No running off.’
‘Yes, Papa.’
I fell into step beside him; with his long legs we made good progress, and were soon pushing our way further up the procession. First it wound up the Heisterbacher Strasse and past our front door, then it followed the line of the medieval defensive walls west towards the great gate, the Orchheimer Tor. I looked about me at the excited faces, the flickering torches and glowing lanterns, and the ancient stones of the walls, interspersed with arrow slits. We could have been back in the Middle Ages, on our way to a coronation – or a witch-burning...

Above: no witches burning - just a bonfire! 

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