I doubt I have to explain a lot about Halloween since that’s quite a popular event in the USA as well as in several other countries. In Germany this modern custom is slowly gaining importance even though the elderly people mostly dislike “this modern stuff”. Sankt Martin, Karneval, Halloween – they have something in common though.
Actually Halloween is celebrated quite similar to some other (old) local German traditions. Most of them originate in the beginning of fasten periods. In previous centuries the children would go around, sing and ask for eggs, flour, sugar and maybe a “Mettwurst“. At home people would use those ingredients mostly to prepare a last opulent meal before the fasten period, often heavy pancakes, either sweet with lots of sugar or solid with Mettwurst.
Saint Martin’s Day or Martinstag
The Martinsday is celebrated on November 11th each year. It refers to the Feast of “Saint Martin of Tours” and also marked the beginning of a 40-days fasten period before Christmas.
End of October resp. beginning of November also was the time when harvest was over and autumnal seed time as well. Cattle that couldn’t be fed throughout the winter was slaughtered. Food that wasn’t suitable for the fasten period had to be eaten before that, and so people had a feast before the fasten time began. All this adds to the feast of St. Martin.
In some German areas there are lantern processions for children, nowadays mainly organized by kindergarten and/or school. Often a rider, clad in a soldier’s uniform with a wide cloak, rides in front of the procession. He symbolizes the soldier Martin. At the end of the procession the children gather around a public place, often with a bonfire in the middle. A beggar usually approaches horse and rider and pleads for help. Martin would then remove his wide cloak and cut it in two, giving one half to the beggar, all according to the legend of St. Martin. After that the children receive sweet pretzels or “Stutenkerle” (“Stuten” is a sweet white yeast bread, and “Kerl” is another word for lad or man).
Where I grew up, in the Rhineland, we would then gather in small groups and walk along our street, ringing the door bell at every house. When someone would open the door, we’d sing special songs (“Martinslieder”) and then we’d get our rewards, sweets. Other German areas have slightly other traditions during that time, even the date differs sometimes.
When I came to Westphalia I prepared for St. Martin and bought lots of sweets, waiting for the children to come and ring our door bell. And guess what? No children, no lanterns, no songs, nothing. I was disappointed. Westphalia doesn’t celebrate Martinsday like we did in the Rhineland.
Sure, they had lantern processions on Martinsday and they also had a uniformed soldier riding ahead. They had bonfires and the beggar and the shared cloak. But the children didn’t visit every house in their street after the play, singing and asking for sweets. They simply went home, without further ado…
A few months after my disappointing Martinsday experience I saw children walking along our street, ringing the door bell at every house, singing songs and being rewarded with sweets. But that was at the end of winter, shortly before the 40-days fasten period before Easter.
The answer to this riddle? It was “Rosenmontag”, part of the German “Karneval” and the next to last day before the fasten period before Easter. Karneval is also called “Fastnacht” or similar in some areas and means “night before the fasting”.
Yes, of course I knew Karneval, that’s almost a holiday (or several inofficial holidays rather) in the Rhineland. We had (and still have) lots of processions there, costumes, music, dancing… but no children walking from house to house and asking for sweets.
But here they were, bunches of children in colorful costumes (no lanterns though), ringing door bells, singing either “Tüdelütchen Fassenacht” (“tüdelü” seems to mean crazy or small useless stuff, depends on who you ask…) or “Ich bin ein kleiner König” (I’m a little king), asking for edible things, like we did on Martinsday. And I wasn’t ready because I didn’t know. Uggh… embarrassing, I know. I handed them an apple each at least. Of course nowadays they always get some sweets as well as an apple or other piece of fruit from me.
Sankt Martin, Karneval and Halloween nowadays
As I mentioned before, those traditions differ a lot, depending on the German area, and even the dates aren’t identical. I can only tell you about the Martinsday and Karneval traditions which I knew as a child and experienced as an adult. I don’t know much about similar traditions in other German areas.
Things have changed anyway. When in former times children asked for eggs and sugar they did so because eggs and sugar couldn’t always be taken for granted for the folks. In my youth sweets were something special, so we went singing for sweets.
Nowadays eggs and sweets are so natural in almost everybody’s life it’s not too exciting for the children to go singing for those. And so this tradition on Martinsday or Karneval has become rare in some areas. The children still go around in my village though. But I seldom see older children with lanterns or costumes nowadays. Usually it’s a group of kindergarten kids, accompanied by an older sibling or a parent for safety on the streets or in the dark.
To me Halloween almost is like a nice combination of the two traditions I know. Children walk from door to door singing for sweets, with costumes like Karneval and lanterns of some sort like Martinsday. The rare three or four kids that show up at my doorstep on Halloween, nicely costumed and sometimes even with a lantern, will always get something special from me. Usually they get sweets and fruit along with a slip of paper with a small proper Halloween rhyme instead of the plain “Trick or treat” or as they say in German “Süßes oder Saures!”. Next time I expect them to know that rhyme by heart… 😉
- Last year I also had small glass vials for them, filled with eggs from bird-eating spiders (= colored sugar pearls). Did you know how many colored bird-eating spiders exist? I didn’t – until then. Some really are beautiful spiders actually, don’t hurt me, please… ;). The children shrieked – and grabbed the vials VERY quickly 😉 They seemed to like it.
- The year before that I made magic wands from ball pens with a wooden body, similar to something I found on the international spiderweb some time ago. I can’t find it any more, a bit like these wands.
- And the year before that I prepared extra paper wrappings with spooky descriptions for a rat’s brain (= walnut halves), mice brains (= raisins), sliced monster thigh bones (= dried banana slices), jellied spider blood (try to guess what that is…) and similar. Lots of fun for me, lots of fun for them – hopefully.
Even though the origins of all three traditional events might be different they have one thing in common: people sharing what they have with those who ask nicely. And that always has been a good thing, don’t you think?
Do you celebrate Halloween the same all over the US or are there different traditions as well? How do the kids ask for sweets, with rhymes only or also with a song?