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 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:

Laterne Laterne

Regular chorus

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


  1. Ein Lichtermeer zu Martins Ehr
  2. Der Martinsmann, der zieht voran
  3. Wie schön das klingt, wenn jeder singt
  4. Ein Kuchenduft liegt in der Luft
  5. Beschenkt uns heut, ihr lieben Leut
  6. Laternenlicht, verlösch mir nicht!
  7. Mein Licht ist aus, ich geh nach Haus

Last chorus

Laterne, Laterne
Laterne, Laterne,
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.


Nov 112013


Today is the feast day of St Martin of Tours (316 – 397), one of the best known and best loved of the saints. Countless holy places, towns, institutions, and geographic locations are named for him, and he is patron of many (including Buenos Aires).  In popular lore he is remembered primarily for his act of dividing his military cloak in half so that he could give half to a freezing beggar.  His life is recorded in a special volume by his contemporary Sulpicius Severus, although this is not a biography in the conventional sense. I will focus here on two well-known events in his life, then shift gears to talk about how this day, also called Martinmas, is celebrated in various countries.

Martin was born in 316 AD in Savaria in the Diocese of Pannonia (now Szombathely in Hungary). His father was a senior officer in the Imperial Horse Guard, a unit of the Roman army, later stationed at Ticinum (now Pavia), in northern Italy, where Martin grew up. As the son of a veteran officer, Martin at fifteen was required to join the cavalry. Around 334, he was stationed at Samarobriva in Gaul (now Amiens in France). It is likely that he joined the Equites catafractarii Ambianenses, a heavy cavalry unit. His unit was mostly ceremonial and did not face much combat. It was at this time that the famous incident of the cloak occurred.

The story comes from Sulpicius Severus:

Accordingly, at a certain period, when he had nothing except his arms and his simple military dress, in the middle of winter, a winter which had shown itself more severe than ordinary, so that the extreme cold was proving fatal to many, he happened to meet at the gate of the city of Amiens a poor man destitute of clothing. He was entreating those that passed by to have compassion upon him, but all passed the wretched man without notice, when Martin, that man full of God, recognized that a being to whom others showed no pity, was, in that respect, left to him. Yet, what should he do? He had nothing except the cloak in which he was clad, for he had already parted with the rest of his garments for similar purposes. Taking, therefore, his sword with which he was girt, he divided his cloak into two equal parts, and gave one part to the poor man, while he again clothed himself with the remainder. Upon this, some of the by-standers laughed, because he was now an unsightly object, and stood out as but partly dressed. Many, however, who were of sounder understanding, groaned deeply because they themselves had done nothing similar. They especially felt this, because, being possessed of more than Martin, they could have clothed the poor man without reducing themselves to nakedness. In the following night, when Martin had resigned himself to sleep, he had a vision of Christ arrayed in that part of his cloak with which he had clothed the poor man. He contemplated the Lord with the greatest attention, and was told to own as his the robe which he had given. Ere long, he heard Jesus saying with a clear voice to the multitude of angels standing round — “Martin, who is still but a catechumen, clothed me with this robe.”

The part kept by himself became the famous relic preserved in the oratory of the Merovingian kings of the Franks at the Marmoutier Abbey near Tours. During the Middle Ages, the supposed relic of St. Martin’s miraculous cloak, (cappa Sancti Martini) was carried by the king even into battle, and used as a holy relic upon which oaths were sworn. The cloak is first attested in the royal treasury in 679, when it was conserved at the palatium of Luzarches, a royal villa that was later ceded to the monks of Saint-Denis by Charlemagne, in 798/99.

According to Sulpicius Severus, he served in the military for only another two years (which scholars now dispute), but was released because of the following:

In the meantime, as the barbarians were rushing within the two divisions of Gaul, Julian Cæsar, [also called Julian the apostate] bringing an army together at the city of the Vaugiones, began to distribute a donative [advance pay]  to the soldiers. As was the custom in such a case, they were called forward, one by one, until it came to the turn of Martin. Then, indeed, judging it a suitable opportunity for seeking his discharge–for he did not think it would be proper for him, if he were not to continue in the service, to receive a donative–he said to Cæsar, “Hitherto I have served you as a soldier: allow me now to become a soldier to God: let the man who is to serve thee receive thy donative: I am the soldier of Christ: it is not lawful for me to fight.” Then truly the tyrant stormed on hearing such words, declaring that, from fear of the battle, which was to take place on the morrow, and not from any religious feeling, Martin withdrew from the service. But Martin, full of courage, yea all the more resolute from the danger that had been set before him, exclaims, “If this conduct of mine is ascribed to cowardice, and not to faith, I will take my stand unarmed before the line of battle tomorrow, and in the name of the Lord Jesus, protected by the sign of the cross, and not by shield or helmet, I will safely penetrate the ranks of the enemy.” He is ordered, therefore, to be thrust back into prison, determined on proving his words true by exposing himself unarmed to the barbarians. But, on the following day, the enemy sent ambassadors to treat about peace and surrendered both themselves and all their possessions. In these circumstances who can doubt that this victory was due to the saintly man? It was granted him that he should not be sent unarmed to the fight. And although the good Lord could have preserved his own soldier, even amid the swords and darts of the enemy, yet that his blessed eyes might not be pained by witnessing the death of others, he removed all necessity for fighting. For Christ did not require to secure any other victory on behalf of his own soldier, than that, the enemy being subdued without bloodshed, no one should suffer death.


Martin was subsequently freed of his military service and is, therefore, often claimed to be the first conscientious objector to military service; and is their patron.  Paradoxically, because of his military service, he is also patron of those in the military.  Then again, he is also the patron saint of wine growers and reformed alcoholics.

Martinmas marks an important turning point in the agricultural year.  In pre-industrial Europe roughly 80% of the population (depending on region) lived and worked on the land, directly or indirectly.  Therefore, the agricultural cycle dominated life. Martinmas closed the arable year – harvests were in and the winter wheat had been planted. It also closed the pastoral year, for the most part.  Sheep could winter over, and cows still needed to be milked.  But, the bulk of animals were slaughtered because they could not be fed over the winter, and because the year was designed such that new animals were born in the spring, raised over the summer and early autumn, and so were mature by Martinmas.  Farm workers often ended their annual contracts at Martinmas because there was not enough work for them over winter.  They would, therefore be paid off. If you put all of this together you have a festive day ripe for celebration.  People had money and free time; barns were full and fresh meat abounded.

Martinmas festivals were, and still are, common all across Europe.  Their actual nature varied considerably from region to region but certain themes are quite widespread.  First, there is an emphasis on children and children’s processions because Martin has an association with love of children.  In many countries children carry lanterns in procession, and are often given sweet treats.  In fact, at one time in some regions Martinmas was more like our current Christmas for children with presents and the like.

Sankt Martinszug
Second,  particularly in areas with vineyards, this was the time to try the new wines – which may be how St Martin gets his association with wine.  Martinmas has an air of ripeness and fruitfulness as the autumn wanes.  Third, with so much fresh and freshly salted meat available it was time for a party.  In many rural areas farm workers ate meat on special occasions only.  The commonest meat for Martinmas across Europe is goose.  The legend has it that the goose celebrates the fact that when Martin was elected bishop of Tours he was anxious to avoid the job and so hid in a barn.  But the geese there, by their noise, gave his location away.  However, the obvious agricultural explanation for the choice is that geese were sent to market at this time of year. I already covered goose for Michaelmas (29 Sept), so I will refer to another tradition – Martinmas beef.


Martinmas beef is really just another version of corned beef, and can be made in many ways.  In England sweet spices predominate.  I have a cheaters’ version which I have used over the years which works well.  I poach a corned beef in the usual manner, but I add cloves, allspice, and mace to the poaching water instead of the usual pickling spices.  You will be surprised at how richly flavorful the result is.  I also poach potatoes in the water towards the end.  I then use a little roux to thicken some of the poaching water to make a gravy.  Mashed winter squash with nutmeg makes a good side dish.

You can also make a baked version if you prefer. In which case set the beef in an oven casserole with diced onion, cloves, allspice, and mace.  Pour over a cup each of white wine and white wine vinegar.  Bake, covered, at 300°F/150°C for about 3 hours.  Thicken the juices to make a gravy and serve with potatoes and carrots (or winter vegetable of your choice).