Saint Martin’s Day, also known as the Feast of Saint Martin or in german "Martinstag", is celebrated on November 11 each year. This is the time when autumn wheat seeding was completed, and the annual slaughter of fattened cattle produced “Martinmas beef”. Historically, hiring fairs were held where farm laborers would seek new posts.

Saint Martin of Tours started out as a Roman soldier then was baptized as an adult and became a monk. It is understood that he was a kind man who led a quiet and simple life. The best known legend of his life is that he once cut his cloak in half to share with a beggar during a snowstorm, to save the beggar from dying from the cold. That night he dreamed that Jesus was wearing the half-cloak. Martin heard Jesus say to the angels, “Here is Martin, the Roman soldier who is not baptised; he has clothed me.“ 

A widespread custom in Germany is bonfires on St. Martin’s eve, called “Martinsfeuer.” In recent years, the processions that accompany those fires have been spread over almost a fortnight before Martinmas. At one time, the Rhine River valley would be lined with fires on the eve of Martinmas. In the Rhineland region, Martin’s day is celebrated traditionally with a get-together during which a roasted suckling pig is shared with the neighbours.

The nights before and on the night of Nov. 11, children walk in processions carrying lanterns, which they made in school, and sing Martin songs. Usually, the walk starts at a church and goes to a public square. A man on horseback dressed like St. Martin accompanies the children. When they reach the square, Martin’s bonfire is lit and Martin’s pretzels are distributed.

In some regions of Germany (e.g. Rhineland or Bergisches Land) in a separate procession the children also go from house to house with their lanterns, sing songs and get candy in return.

The origin of the procession of lanterns is unclear. To some, it is a substitute for the St. Martin bonfire, which is still lit in a few cities and villages throughout Europe. It formerly symbolized the light that holiness brings to the darkness, just as St. Martin brought hope to the poor through his good deeds. Even though the tradition of the large, crackling fire is gradually being lost, the procession of lanterns is still practiced.

The tradition of the St. Martin’s gooseor “Martinsgans”, which is typically served on the evening of St. Martin’s feast day following the procession of lanterns, most likely evolved from the well-known legend of St. Martin and the geese in which a flock of geese betrayed Martin’s hiding place as he was trying to hide from the people of Tours when they wanted to make him a bishop. “Martinsgans” is usually served in restaurants, roasted, with red cabbage and dumplings.

In some regions of Germany, the traditional sweet of Martinmas is “Martinshörnchen”, a pastry shaped in the form of a croissant, which recalls both the hooves of St. Martin’s horse and, by being the half of a pretzel, the parting of his mantle. In parts of western Germany these pastries are instead shaped like men (Stutenkerl or Weckmänner).

Some additions: In some regions, the walks extend to the nearest forest if possible, to
experience walking in darkness with only the lanterns as the sole light
source. The exact date also varies, shifting it to the next weekend before or after November 11.

While walking, the children sing Lantern Song:

Ich geh’ mit meiner Laterne
und meine Laterne mit mir.
Dort oben leuchten die Sterne,
und unten, da leuchten wir.

I am walking with my lantern
and my lantern is walking with me.
The stars are shining up there
and we are shining down here.

This chorus is followed by different verses, of which the best known is:

Das Licht ist aus,
wir geh’n nach Haus’,
rabimmel, rabammel, rabumm.

The light is out,
we are going home,

rabimmel, rabammel, rabumm.

Ein Lichtermeer
zu Martins Ehr’,
rabimmel, rabammel, rabumm.

A sea of lights
to honor St. Martin,
rabimmel, rabammel, rabumm.

Der Martinsmann,
der zieht voran,
rabimmel, rabammel, rabumm.

St. Martin
is walking ahead,
rabimmel, rabammel, rabumm.

Wie schön das klingt,
wenn jeder singt,
rabimmel, rabammel, rabumm.

How beautiful it sounds
when everybody is singing,
rabimmel, rabammel, rabumm.

Ein Kuchenduft
liegt in der Luft,
rabimmel, rabammel, rabumm.

A smell of cake
is in the air,
rabimmel, rabammel, rabumm.

Beschenkt uns heut,
ihr lieben Leut,
rabimmel, rabammel, rabumm.

Give us presents today,
dear people,
rabimmel, rabammel, rabumm.

verlösch mir nicht!
rabimmel, rabammel, rabumm.

Light of the lantern,
don’t go out on me!
rabimmel, rabammel, rabumm.

Sometimes, it is just small
privately organized groups, kindergarten or primary school classes walking through the
streets, sometimes big parades are organized, accompanied by the local
marching band. The bonfire mentioned above is not lit everywhere, and the traditions vary considerably throughout Germany. In the catholic areas, it is celebrated to honor St. Martin, in the protestant areas, it is held more often on November 10, the birthday of Martin Luther (as the protestants don’t believe in saints).

Some sources say, the tradition may originate from an ancient pagan festival of light at the beginning
of the dark season. When the people were christianized, the
legend of St. Martin was attached to the older tradition, and after the Lutheran protestant reformation, the tradition went on to remember Martin Luther.