Nov 102016


Martinisingen (“Martin singing”) is an old Protestant custom which is found especially in East Friesland, but also on the Lüneburg Heath and in other parts of North and East Germany. It also goes under the names of Martini or Martinssingen and the Low German names of Sünnematten or Mattenherrn (today often erroneously corrupted to Matten Matten Mähren). Martinisingen takes place on 10th November (similar to the Catholic Martinssingen on 11 November) with groups of children carrying lanterns from house to house, singing traditional songs, and receiving treats.


Martinisingen is a custom with a mix of several elements. Some people note that traditionally 10th  November was the day on which farmhands and contract workers were dismissed for the winter. Those without property had to subsequently survive the coldest time of the year without any income, and it is surmised (with the usual lack of good primary evidence) that their children were able to help by going from house to house on this day begging for food and gifts, especially from the well-to-do farmers and citizens. I doubt this was a widespread custom or has much to do with current practice. It seems that the gifts given out (as recorded) have always been symbolic and, today, they usually consist of sweets and fruit. The traditional gifts included gingerbread men (Stutenkerl), honey cakes (Moppen), and Pfeffernüsse (pēpernööten) as well as apples.


At one time the children carried lanterns (kipkapköögels) made from beets similar to the turnip lanterns used at Halloween in Celtic countries — . These were sometimes replaced by small pumpkins, which are much easier to carve than root vegetables, but gradually, all of these were replaced by colored paper lanterns, which are common today. Various home-made instruments were also used such as rattles (Rasseln) and friction drums (Rummelpott).


With the coming of the Reformation the Martinisingen custom adopted aspects of praise for Martin Luther, particularly in the songs. In 1817, to celebrate the tricentennial anniversary of the Reformation in 1517, Martinisingen was moved to 10th November, the eve of St. Martin’s Day (which is also Martin Luther’s birthday) . From then on Martin Luther was celebrated as the “Friend of light and man of God” (Freund des Lichts und Mann Gottes) who “knocked the crown off the pope in Rome” (der dem Papst in Rom die Krone vom Haupt schlug). Many German Catholic celebratory customs for St. Martin’s Day (Martin of Tours) were folded into Martinisingen . Increasingly, the custom of Martinisingen became a celebration of Martin Luther, and the motive of begging for treats got confused (in a roundabout way) with the begging tradition of the monastic orders. The traditional songs were given a Protestant, religious flavor and new ones were written that honored Martin Luther. All in all, a competent scholar should sift through the primary sources and come up with a reasonable explanation of the evolution of the custom which now has mixed in with it all manner of traditions, including Halloween. My suspicion (based on no evidence, of course), is that current custom derives almost entirely from the 19th century and all the historical nonsense about its “origins” are made up. That kind of thinking has been the bane of serious folklore scholarship for 100 years.

Today children go through the suburbs from door to door around dusk carrying lanterns and singing Martinilieder. The light in the lantern is often no longer a candle but electric because, in the November winds, the lanterns often caught fire.  There is a verse in one popular song, “Lanterns, Lanterns” that goes “burn up my light, but not my precious lantern”. I’m not a big fan of replacing real candles with electric ones in all kinds of contexts. I understand why people use strings of electric lights on Christmas trees, for example, instead of candles. They are messy and dangerous. But one Christmas Eve I joined a Danish family singing carols in a darkened room around a Christmas tree lighted with candles and it