For the past six years I've written a Veterans Day Post on November 11th, but this year, I'm going to branch out and write about St. Martin's Day instead -- a long - lost but lovely opportunity to light up a scary night.
As the Armistice at the end of World War I was signed at eleven o'clock in the morning, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, so too does the celebration of Martinmas begin at the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.
Not widely observed in the United States, St. Martin's Day commemorates good St. Martin, a Hungarian Bishop of the 4th Century who cut his coat in half to share with a freezing beggar. It is the day that amongst other things, we can sort through our closets and donate half of our coats and sweaters to clothing drives for those more needy. That way, there will be plenty of room available when we receive new sweaters and jackets for Christmas a few weeks down the line. In fact, Martinmas (November 11) is the middle point between Michaelmas (September 29) and Christmas (December 25).
Coming less than two weeks after Hallowmas , Martinmas incorporates many of the same traditions: lantern carvings, neighborhood processions, the distribution of sweets, honoring the dead, bonfires, harvest celebrations, loss of daylight hours, and anticipation of the coming winter.
Indiana poet Norbert Krapf draws another connection, from the tragedy of Kristallnacht, occurring November 9 - 10, 1938, to the hope of Chanukah, as the Martinmas lanterns "merge into the menorah":
St. Martin's Day
In damp dark, we parents and children
line up in groups behind teachers
in the Pausenhof of the Grundschule
to walk in procession to the park
behind the baroque palace. As we
move forward in unison, we sing songs
to celebrate the legend of a knight on horseback
who cut his cloak in half with his sword
to comfort a beggar on foot. The children
carry tiny flames through the dark
in lanterns they have made in school
and hooked to the end of sticks.
"Laterne, Laterne, Sonne, Mond und Sterne,"
they sing. In Elizabeth's blue box burns
a candle illuminating a paper angel, an apple,
a moon, and a star cut out in construction
paper she glued together. Before the arched
Orangerie in the park, the children stand
in semicircles to sing. Some play recorders,
some play violins, some tap rhythm
on tambourines. Behind them, facing
us parents, is a big illuminated sheet,
before which silhouetted children
actors mime the action of Martin
and his beggar as classmates narrate their
lines. At the end, all sing the round
"Hebet die Laterne / Lift the lanterns,"
repeat the refrain "Licht zu bringen
in dieser Welt / To bring light into this
world," and follow a rider on horseback
into the dark. As they wind along geometric
walkways in the Schlosspark, stringing
beads of light through the dark with their
handmade lanterns, I remember the first question
Elizabeth asked after we arrived in Erlangen:
"Daddy, do they celebrate Chanukah here?"
Fifty years after the Kristallnacht, I see
burning beads of light along looping walkways
merge into the menorah held in uplifted hands.
by Norbert Krapf