German word of the day: Das Laternelaufen

Children walk with lanterns through Berlin.
Children walk with lanterns through Berlin. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Britta Pedersen
Forget Halloween – Laternelaufen is the autumn tradition you need to know about while living in Germany (with or without kids). 

“Das Laternelaufen” or lantern walking, is an annual celebration in honour of St. Martin’s Day.  While St. Martin’s Day is an occasion celebrated by Catholics across Europe, including the UK, this children’s tradition seems to only be commonplace in German speaking regions (Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Luxembourg and some areas of Belgium, Italy and Poland). 

As the legend goes, Saint Martin, a Roman soldier, gave a beggar half of his red cloak to protect him during a snowstorm. Through this good deed, Saint Martin is considered the patron saint of travellers and the poor and is seen as an example to children to share and be giving. While this holiday has its roots in Catholicism, it has become commonplace for German children of all faiths to be taught St. Martin’s story and celebrate the occasion through Laternenlaufen.

READ ALSO: Where to enjoy St. Martin’s celebrations across Germany

(article continues below)

See also on The Local:

Once the sun sets on November 11th, children across Germany, and in some other countries, take part in a procession through the streets, carrying handcrafted paper lanterns and singing traditional St. Martin songs. The procession is usually organised through local kindergartens and schools, and the lanterns are often made by the children themselves during their classes. The children are often accompanied by a man dressed as St. Martin in his iconic red cloak. This procession is then referred to as “der Laternenumzug” or lantern procession. At the end of the walk, you will often find a large St. Martin’s bonfire and a traditional meal of goose, the “Martinsgans” (Martin’s goose), red cabbage and dumplings waiting for you. 

But what do paper lanterns have to do with St. Martin?

As far back as the Middle Ages, to mark the end of the autumn harvest in the Alemannic region of western Upper Germany, traditional lanterns were crafted out of turnips, called “Räbenlichte” (literally: turnip lanterns), with a candle flame in the centre lighting up the vegetable. Turnips were a staple food at the time and their harvest was therefore celebrated in this way. Nowadays the lanterns are no longer made out of turnips, instead children opt for coloured cardboard and tracing paper as tools for creating their glowing pieces of art. Naturally, for safety reasons, the candle of the lantern is now replaced with an LED light. 

So, the two aren’t explicitly linked, but it seems the harvest season overlapped with St. Martin’s day, resulting in today’s celebrations combining the two. Either way, “Laternelaufen” is something children love to take part in, and many German adults reminisce over. 

Examples:

Bevor wir mit dem Laternenlaufen beginnen können, müssen wir zuerst unsere Laternen basteln.

Before we go on our lantern walk, we must first make the lanterns.

Morgen ist Sankt Martinstag, das heißt, es ist Zeit für unseren Laternenumzug!

Tomorrow is St. Martin’s Day, which means it is time for our lantern walk!

Haben Sie die Lieder für dem Laternenlaufen schon auswendig gelernt?

Have you memorised the songs for the lantern walk yet?


Member comments

Become a Member to leave a comment.Or login here.