Martinmas (November 11th) is not commonly celebrated in the United States, but it’s such a lovely festival that I wanted to tell you all about it. I love celebrating these ‘smaller’ festivals because they have not been taken over by commercial interests, and you can really shape them to be special events for your family or your class/program. Martinmas in particular holds an extra special place in my heart, because it falls on my birthday! Every year growing up, I couldn’t wait for this special celebration.
What Is Martinmas?
Well, there are two parts of Martinmas. The first is that it’s the Saint Day of Saint Martin, and the other part is that Martinmas “adopted” the very old tradition of the the Lantern Walk. Most of us, depending on where we live, are starting to really notice that the days are getting shorter, and the nights are getting longer. As nature starts falling asleep, and the world is getting darker, it is up to us to light the world, with our own inner lights. We must look inside ourselves, and to one another, to light up our world. This light can be seen through warmth, and through kindness, and through doing what we know to be right. Saint Martin was one such man, who shared his red cloak with a beggar, then had a dream where Christ said to him, “What you do to others, you do to me.” Martin stepped down from his post in the Roman Legion to become a holy man. We, like St. Martin, can do things that are warm and friendly for one another, and this help to keep the world alight in these cold times.
We can also make external representations of our inner light, to light the world around us. One way to do that is by making lanterns. I loved making lanterns as a child! Over the years we made many different kinds of lanterns. These are some examples of the types of lanterns we made:
These lanterns are made from a tin can with holes pounded through with a hammer and nail. These can be very fancy, or quite plain, but when lit they look like little stars shining through (fill the can with water and put it in the freezer before hammering, so you don’t crush the can):
Other years, we made “stained glass” lanterns with tissue paper behind cut-outs from stiff paper painted with water color paints. If we wanted to be very fancy, we’d put waxed-paper into the cutouts, with leaves and crayon-shavings ironed between.
Then again, paper mache lanterns are some of the easiest to make, and most colorful of lanterns. They glow all over when lit!
And finally, one of my favorite (although by far the most complex) were the lanterns carved from a turnip:
Whatever the method, we would sing and sing as we made our lanterns. Then, when Martinmas finally came, it was time for our Lantern Walk. Parents and children would gather at dusk, and we would light our lanterns. Together, with our lights shining, we would walk through the land and sing our songs. Now, different groups do the lantern walk differently. Some walk through the woods, where it is very dark. Some walk through the neighborhood, to bring light and goodwill to the neighbors, like caroling. Some structure the whole experience to be soft and quiet and reverent, asking parents to keep the chit-chat to the minimum, so that it’s a truly reflective experience. Other groups troop around gaily, and end the whole thing around a huge bonfire, with songs and hot cider and camaraderie all around.
If you have a home-program and are excited to host an early-evening activity, by all means get busy! Likewise, if you are a parent at home and would like to invite other parents and children over to do a lantern walk, how lovely! But it may be that you can’t host an evening activity, or you don’t have a group of children. No matter what your situation, you can still make lanterns and celebrate the kindling of our own inner lights. Here’s what you might do:
Make Your Lanterns
First off, start leaving the lights off a little more, so that you and your children can really notice that it’s getting darker. Where you can, use small lamps or light candles to add more light. Then, start making your lanterns. One of the biggest-bang-for-your-buck lanterns is the paper mache lantern made with balloons, and there is a lovely description (with photos) of how to make that type of lantern here: http://www.waldorffamilynetwork.com/saints.html . Toddlers can help make this type of lantern quite easily. Or, if you have big boys who love to use tools, make a tin-can lantern. Take a used can and fill it with water, then put it in the freezer. Once it is frozen, you can put it in a plastic tub with a towel in the bottom, and make holes with a hammer and nail. If you get a nail started, a child can “help” hammer it in.
Sing and Tell Stories
While you make your lanterns, sing songs! A song that many people know is “This little light of mine (I’m gonna let it shine).” That’s a good one. I can’t find the songs I used to sing online, but here are a couple more that are sung on a YouTube video that you could use, sung by David Darcy: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mKgUFAytb2k&feature=related. You can sing one or two songs over and over again. Children love repetition! And between the songs, you might tell a story like this:
A Story of Autumn Light Once upon a time there was a little boy who lived with his mother and his father and his baby sister. He played all summer long in his shorts and bare-feet, feeling the hot sun on his face. Then, one day, the ground started to get cold, and he had to put on shoes. Then the wind started to blow! He was chilly! He had to put on a sweater to keep warm. The leaves started to turn colors and fall off of the trees. “What’s happening?” he asked his mother. “Autumn is here,” said his mother, “and soon Winter will be on its way. Do you see how the squirrels are collecting nuts for the winter? And the mice are collecting seeds. And our dog is growing a nice, thick coat to keep himself warm.” The little boy thought about this for a few days, and he did notice the squirrel collecting nuts. And when he petted his dog, he noticed that his coat was getting thick and bushy. A few more days went by, and the boy said, “Mother, it seems like the world used to be full of sunshine, but now it is getting dark. Will it keep getting darker and darker?” And he mother replied, “Yes, it will get darker and darker each evening until the deep winter. The world is getting ready to sleep.” The boy thought about this for a few more days, and he said, “Mother, will we be dark and cold, too?” “No,” said his mother, “We will stay warm, but it won’t be the sun that warms us as much. During these dark, cold months, we will have to find our own lights!” “How can we do that?” the boy asked. “We can do that by lighting fires in the fireplace, by lighting candles all around, by wearing warm clothes and even by making lanterns to take our light with us outside in the dark! And we can keep ourselves and others warm by doing acts of kindness, to warm our hearts.” That little boy and his mother and father made lanterns to bring their lights outside, and when they were done, they took their lanterns out and sang sweet songs, and knocked on their neighbors’ doors to take them some fresh-baked banana bread, to keep them warm as well. And the boy and his family kept their lights lit and their hearts warm all through the Autumn, and through the Winter as well.
When the Day Comes
When the day comes (traditionally November 11th, but if you’re just getting started, do it any day in November; nobody will know!), tell your children: “Today is the day! The day for our Lantern Walk! Today we will take our lights and our warmth outside with us!” Bake some banana bread or cookies together, for the neighbors, all the while talking about how much the neighbors are going to love it, how warm it will make them feel, and how warm you will feel as well! While the bread is baking, the children might color some cards, and then it will be time to make sure that the lanterns are all ready. If you have many more children than adults, and the children are very young, you might need to use those electric votives that “flicker” like a real candle, but if you can, use real candles. Even young children can be careful! Set all of the lanterns on the table, turn out the lights, and light the candles. In this darkened atmosphere, oh-so-quietly get your warm Autumn clothes on, with warm hats, scarves, mittens (depending on the weather in your area). You might hum the lantern songs softly while you dress, and when you have to talk, whisper. This makes the event into something special.
Finally, you’re ready to go! Singing your song loudly, give each child a lantern, and head outside. Sing all the way to the neighbor’s house, and ring the bell. Tell your neighbor that you and the children noticed it was getting cold and dark, and you made some banana bread to help them keep warm! Then back home you go. A successful lantern walk!
The main thing about this is to do something that you and the children can be excited about. It may be that you make only one lantern together. It may be that you take store-bought cookies to one neighbor. Or if you care for many children and going out of your yard is too hard, it may be that you ask parents to arrive 15 minutes early and you and the children walk around the yard with your lanterns and then everyone eats warm banana bread at the end. You can adjust it to whatever feels manageable for you, in your situation. But telling a story for several days in a row, and then “living” the story through your own actions, and noticing how good it feels to be generous to others, helps a family or a class to feel alive and warm and connected. What a wonderful way to go into Autumn!