Martinmas is a hugely popular festival within the Waldorf education community. This will be our first proper year celebrating it with a lantern walk and special meal.
What is Martinmas?
Martinmas is a Christian feast day and takes place on the 11th of November. It is a popular celebration in mainland Europe, especially in Germany where it is a part of both the school year and the community calendar. Celebrations usually involve children going for a walk carrying homemade lanterns and singing little rhymes.
There are a number of ways you can interpret the day if you wish to incorporate it into your family’s life.
St Martin is a Christian saint. He is most famous for the charitable act of sharing his cloak with a beggar. Martin became the patron saint homeless people, beggars and outcasts. Martinmas reminds us to be charitable and kind, a lesson particularly important for children as they hurtle into a highly commercialised Christmas season.
Traditional Meaning of Martinmas
In Europe a light festival was celebrated long before the 11th of November was assigned to St Martin, this older celebration is rooted in the traditional farming calendar. The day was originally a celebration of the last of the year’s harvests, it is also the time in which the first of the summer wine is ready to drink and when the first of the summer born animals are slaughtered for curing. All of this gave communities a big reason to celebrate! Bonfires were lit in villages and town squares and it was said that the entire course of the Rhône was traced by these fires, a young animal was slaughtered and roasted, the Summer wine was poured and family and friends came together to toast the end of their hard work.
Many religions celebrate a festival of light in Autumn or early winter, in India Diwali is celebrated in November, Judaism marks Chanukah in December and the Chinese Moon Festival takes place at the Autumn Equinox.
During Martinmas celebrations the lanterns represent the warmth of friendship and kindness that will sustain us over the coming months. Using the lanterns to guide us home represents our retreat from the busy summer and Autumn season into the slower pace of Winter and the safety and security provided by our home hearths. Here in Ireland early November is the first time when we actually need to light a candle at the children’s dinner time. I think next year I’ll hold off using candles until Martinmas to add an extra touch magic to the ceremony.
Montessori and Waldorf Festivals
For my first few years as a parent I tried to keep away from festivals like those encouraged in Waldorf traditions. I was concerned they’d be a distraction from real life or a disruption to our routine. In fact, they serve the exact opposite purpose and contribute to both our ‘real life’ (what did I even mean by that!) and the rhythm of the year. Celebrations like this help to shape our year, providing opportunities for fun, family time and the building of memorable and meaningful traditions. The Waldorf celebrations fit beautifully into a Montessori home.
Ideas for Celebrating Martinmas
• Make lanterns – there are a few ways to make them, for young children simply pasting coloured tissue paper on to a glass jar is enough. Older children can cut out shapes or scenes from thick card to create silhouettes on their lanterns. The very ambitious can go the whole hog and make wooden frames and waxed paper to create elaborate hanging lights.
• Walk – there is something magical about a group walking and singing together. If you’re sceptical of this (I was) then think of protest marches where feelings are strengthened by a sense of common purpose. A Martinmas walk at dusk with your lanterns is a wonderful experience for families, my children had more fun during our practice run then they have in a long time.
• Meal – this year we’re having friends over to the garden for our ‘walk’, I’m not sure Northern Ireland is ready for the sight of singing lantern bearers marching through the woods at dusk. Thanks to Covid we can’t come inside so we’ll serve hot apple juice/cider and some snacks outside.
• Charity – you can take this as an opportunity to teach your children about charity by starting a food hamper, donating toys and books or researching causes they are interested in.