European lantern parades lit the longer nights of autumn. With roots in ancient history, traditions varied from country to country and even between regions and towns. Whatever traditions were followed European lantern parades brought a magical glow to start the holiday season.
The first day of November marked the Celtic New Year and end of the agrarian year. It was a time when people prepared for winter. They brought animals to closer pastures, harvested crops and stored food for the colder, darker time ahead.
Ancient cultures believed it was a time when the veil between life and death raised, allowing the dead to mingle briefly with the living. Autumn rituals practiced throughout the British Isles and Europe were eventually transformed and Christianized.
Many of the old beliefs were changing by the Victorian Era, According to historian Lesley Bannatyne,
“… the world had turned on its head. Darwin had published The Origin of the Species (1859), and archeology, spurred by excavations in Egypt and Greece, excited the public imagination. Victorians began to see history as a series of progressive layers.”
One of the most widespread themes for European Lantern Parades was the celebration of Saint Martin, the Bishop of Tours who was buried on November 11, in 397.
To this day, many towns celebrate his life on the 11th day of the 11th month of the year. Some start their celebrations at exactly 11 minutes past 11 in the morning. Originating in France, the custom spread to Germany, Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. Today, St. Martin’s Day is celebrated in countries around the world.
In the most popular St. Martin legend, he cut his cloak in half to share with a freezing beggar at Amiens.
According to GermanCulture.com, people, mostly children, celebrate the spirit of generosity by parading through the streets with their lanterns, singing songs “namely, ‘Ich geh mit meiner Laterne’ praising the saint’s generosity.” They walk to houses, singing songs, dancing, or reciting poems to earn sweets, pies, or whatever the host can give them.
In many countries including Germany, people lit bonfires (Martinsfeuer) on St. Martin’s eve. Like lanterns, the glowing light offers a symbol of generosity and goodness in the darkness.
The town of Frintrop in Germany lights a community bonfire to this day. The very first Frintropic Martinszug goes back to the year 1926. Their local website offers a glimmer of traditional St. Martin’s day parade that has survived the decades.
The train starts moving punctually at 5:30 p.m. Led by the marching band “Gut Freund” and followed by St. Martin, the train travels through Seestrasse, Helmstrasse, Glockenstrasse, Höhenweg, Frintroper Strasse to Donnerberg, where the great Martin’s fire is lit. At the very top, there is always a small delegation from BVV, which, together with the police, smuggles the train into the busy Frintroper Straße.
Always Hans Mehring at St. Martin, who has been Martin’s companion for years. The gray horse has also been flanked since 1966 by teenagers and young adults from the Frintrop Gymnastics Association, who make sure that none of the participants “get under their hooves”.
In areas of Switzerland, November lantern parades are less centered on St. Martin and more on ttraditional harvest celebrations. In November, many towns celebrate Räbechilbi during which people carve designs into turnips then light them like lanterns.
The largest Räbechilbi festival is in Richterswil, about 20 minutes from Zurich. The center of town is lit with hundreds of carved turnip lanterns. A lantern parade includes marching bands and floats decorated with turnip lanterns.
In the chronicle of the community of Richterswil it is noted in 1901 that the Räbechilbi takes place again “on the Sunday before Martini”. This is the first written notice from this cultural event. Hollowed-out vines were used as lanterns in the 19th century. By 1905, the Office of Tourism became the official organizer of the lantern parade.
Lantern parades became a favorite subject of artisits. Among the painters featured here are Danish Anne Sophie Petersen (1845 –1910), British Thomas Cooper Gotch (1854–1931) and French born Ferdinand du Puigaudeau (1864-1930).
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