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 — https://www.bookofdaystales.com/hop-tu-naa/ . 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) https://www.bookofdaystales.com/st-martin-of-tours/ . 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 was magical.
Since the end of the 1990s Martinisingen has had competition from Halloween as a result of shop advertising and hype from the US, as well as the enthusiasm of a few teachers in primary schools and kindergartens (as is true worldwide). I’m pleased to say that globally Halloween US style is not catching on.
Here’s the best known song from Martinisingen for German speakers:
Ich geh mit meiner Laterne
und meine Laterne mit mir.
Da oben leuchten die Sterne
und unten da leuchten wir.
- Ein Lichtermeer zu Martins Ehr
- Der Martinsmann, der zieht voran
- Wie schön das klingt, wenn jeder singt
- Ein Kuchenduft liegt in der Luft
- Beschenkt uns heut, ihr lieben Leut
- Laternenlicht, verlösch mir nicht!
- Mein Licht ist aus, ich geh nach Haus
Sonne, Mond und Sterne,
brenne auf mein Licht,
brenne auf mein Licht,
aber nur meine liebe Laterne nicht.
Pfeffernüsse (pepper nuts) are the perfect treat for Martinisingen because they are common gifts for the singers. The Netherlands, Germany, and Belgium are all noted for pfeffernüsse which are associated there with 6th December, the feast of St. Nicholas, and with Christmas in general – much like gingerbread. The name “pepper nut” does not mean they contains nuts, though some varieties do. It just means that they are hard. Some versions are VERY hard.
Though recipes differ considerably, all contain aromatic spices – most commonly cinnamon, cloves, and anise. Some variations are dusted with powdered sugar, though that is not a traditional ingredient. Molasses and honey can be used to sweeten the cookies. For the dough, some versions still use 19th century ingredients such as potassium carbonate and ammonium carbonate as leavening agents to get the sticky and dense consistency of the original mixture. It is then either kneaded by hand or with an electric mixer. Regular sodium bicarbonate is more usual, though.
For the cookies:
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tspn ground cinnamon
½ tspn baking soda
½ tspn baking powder
½ tspn ground ginger
½ tspn ground nutmeg
½ tspn fine salt
¼ tspn ground allspice
¼ tspn freshly ground black pepper
½ cup sliced almonds, toasted
8 tbspn unsalted butter at room temperature
finely grated lemon zest from 2 medium lemons
finely grated orange zest from 1 medium orange
1 cup packed dark brown sugar
1 large egg
¾ cup molasses or honey
¼ cup finely chopped candied lemon peel
For the spiced sugar:
1 cup powdered sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tspn ground ginger
½ tspn ground nutmeg
¼ tspn ground allspice
Sift together the flour, cinnamon, baking soda, baking powder, ginger, nutmeg, salt, allspice, and pepper into a large bowl.
Place the almonds in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a blade attachment and process until finely ground. Add the almonds to the flour mixture and stir to combine.
Place the butter, lemon zest, and orange zest in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment and beat on medium speed until fluffy and combined. Add the brown sugar and beat until incorporated and lightened in color. Add the egg and beat until incorporated. Add the molasses (or honey) and candied lemon peel and beat until just incorporated. Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides of the bowl and the paddle with a rubber spatula.
With the mixer on low, add the flour mixture in three additions, mixing until just combined. Do not overmix. Scrape the mix out on to waxed paper, fold over the paper to cover and refrigerate for at least one hour.
Heat the oven to 350°F.
Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.
Cut the chilled dough into three, and, one at a time, roll the dough into logs about 3/4-inch in diameter. Then cut the logs into small segments and roll each into a ball. Space them 1 ½ inches apart on the prepared baking sheets. Bake the pfeffernüsse in batches. After about 8 minutes rotate the sheets from front to back. Continue baking until the pfeffernüsse are very lightly browned around the edges, about 5 to 6 minutes more. (The tops will be soft, but they will firm up as the cookies stand.) Transfer the baking sheets to 2 wire racks and let them sit until the pfeffernüsse are cool enough to handle but still warm, about 3 minutes.
You can omit this step if you want the pfeffernüsse plain, as is traditional. Sift the spiced sugar ingredients into a large bowl. Toss the warm pfeffernüsse in the sugar, tap to remove excess, and cool completely. Then store in an airtight container.