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Light into Darkness in times of COVID-19

Published November 11, 2020 by Dr John Mueller

Pandemic restrictions across the globe have forced us to reduce the amount of contact we have with our fellow man and often all but locked us into our homes. The poorest, as is so often the case, suffer the most and are easily forgotten as they are out of sight. In addition, the nights are drawing in, making the prospect of the next few months a glum one. There is, however, a Christian festival on in November that may bring cheer and some idea of resolution to these age-old problems (pandemics, poverty and the darkness of winter are hardly new, hence the author’s avoidance of the word ‘unprecedented’). Like so many positive things, it involves light, gentle exercise, food and (socially-distanced) fellowship.

The 11th of November is the festival of St Martin of Tours, a Roman soldier who converted to Christianity some time in 300AD. As the bishop of Tours he is said to have established the western monastic tradition. Through a large part of the 20th century he was depicted on the Swiss banknotes chopping his military cape in half and wrapping a freezing beggar in it – and it is in this attitude that he is mostly shown in church paintings and sculptures.

St Martin’s day is characterised by numerous customs in the German-speaking world, including roasting a goose, singing and lantern processions. During the St Martin parades, children with lanterns move through the streets of villages and towns. They are usually accompanied by a rider sitting on a horse who, in his red cloak, depicts St Martin as a Roman soldier. Often the legendary gift of the cape to the beggar is reenacted in a modern variation on the medieval passion play. The theatrics of the ‘mantle division’ accentuate the appeal for human help and encourage, not just the children, to emulate the saint in the winter months to give generously to those who do not have food and heat to warm themselves. St Martin would have worked for homeless shelters today one imagines.

Special songs are sung during the parade exhorting charity and the hope that light and warmth brings, often accompanied by a brass band. The lanterns are usually crafted beforehand in primary schools and kindergartens. Some can be extremely elaborate and flammable. At the end of the procession, there is often a big bonfire. Nowadays children in some regions of West Germany receive a figure made from yeast dough with raisins, a sort-of depiction of St Martin and a reminder of the joy of charity. Today's St. Martin parades are mostly parish, school-oriented and catechetical. However, some are organised by city councils.

In October 2017, an initiative of 73 St Martin’s associations applied for recognition of the tradition they cultivate as an intangible cultural heritage of the UNESCO. While the large events, in which hundreds of eager children process with their lanterns through the town, will doubtless not take place in 2020, I do hope people will be embracing the festival of charity and light in some way this year. We need it now just as much as we have done in similarly dire times. Perhaps we will hear reports of people taking their mandated exercise in the darkened streets, clutching a lantern or torch, nodding to others doing the same – the author certainly shall be.

Dr John Mueller is Director of Studies in History at St Edmund's College, Cambridge, and Alumni & Supporter Relations Manager at the Woolf Institute. Find out more about him and his research. He is currently working on a book for Bloomsbury based on the PhD he wrote under Professor Sir Richard Evans.

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