Nightly processions of children with brightly lit lanterns in the autumnal dark are not uncommon in Hamburg. In fact, in many Hamburg neighbourhoods, there are events called Laternelaufen (lit. ‘Walking with lanterns’) for children and families organised by local parishes and kindergartens to honour the life and deeds of St. Martin. These locally-organised parades are beloved all over northwest Germany.
Who was St. Martin?
Legend has it that Martin of Tours was a Roman soldier in 4th century France. It is said that when he met a beggar in a snowstorm, Martin cut his cloak in half and gave it to the poor man to prevent him from freezing to death. Jesus later appeared to Martin in a dream and told him that he had been the beggar and that Martin had saved him.
Martin later became a bishop and was henceforth the patron of the children and the poor. He died in 397 and was buried on 11 November that same year. In medieval times, this date coincided with the end of the agrarian crop year (just like the German thanksgiving celebration of Erntedankfest) as well as the beginning of the fasting period before Christmas, and today St. Martin’s Day is celebrated by many Christians with a feast, for example of geese.
As to how and why the lantern processions in St. Martin’s honour originated, the link between his life and the celebrations is quite unclear. But the bonfires and the children’s lanterns at least shed light on the dark November nights.
At school or kindergarten, many children make colourful lanterns and hang them from sticks. These lanterns are then lit with small candles and carried by the children through the dark streets. These evening processions are often led by actors dressed like a bearded medieval soldier and riding a horse from the church or kindergarten to a public square. While walking, the children sing popular children's songs, such as ‘Laterne, Laterne’ or ‘Ich geh mit meiner Laterne’. At the point of arrival, the children are often given little loafs of bread in the shape St. Martin or halves of a pretzel to resemble the half of his cloak.
Processions in your neighbourhood
There are many lantern processions all over Hamburg every autumn. For a comprehensive list of processions near you, please see our German page.