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November 11, a special date

The holiday season is about to start and with it all its popular and cherished traditions and celebrations, some known around the world, others more local. Many of these celebrations, such as Halloween and Thanksgiving and the typical German Christmas markets with their arts and crafts, atmospheric lighting, Christmas specialties and mulled wine, are known far beyond their borders.

Today though, we would like to take a look at two (mostly) German traditions which are celebrated every year on or around November, 11 and may not yet be familiar to everyone outside Germany.

On November, 11, 397 AD, a certain Roman soldier who lived in Tours, France, was buried with great sympathy of the town’s population. According to legend this soldier, whose name was Martin, gave half of his coat to a poor, freezing beggar as an act of charity. After his death, he was made a saint. St. Martin is patron saint of travelers and of the poor as well as, inter alia, refugees and has become the embodiment of charity.

Until today, on November, 11, especially children with their parents gather at sundown in every German village or city in honor of St. Martin and walk the streets with lanterns singing St. Martin's and lantern songs, often accompanied by a St. Martin's actor on a horse and a musical band. Large St. Martin's bonfires are lit, plays are performed in which the legend of the coat sharing is commemorated and, also in remembrance of the sharing of the coat, depending on the region, pretzels or little pastries in different shapes are shared among the children.

The so-called St. Martin's goose, which is a popular meal at this time of the year, also has its origin in the legend of St. Martin. According to the legend, Martin hid in a barn among the geese to avoid the consecration as bishop, of which he did not feel worthy.

But St. Martin is more than just a popular and cherished tradition among smaller children and their families in Germany. The tradition was recognized as intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO in 2018.

So much of the legend and the traditions which have grown of it. Of course, all these traditions also have historical explanations. In former times, November, 11 was the day on which taxes or feudal dues had to be paid. These were usually paid in kind, e.g. with a goose. In addition, November, 11 was the last day before the 40-day lent before Christmas. People seized the last opportunity to enjoy a good meal and celebrate before fasting.

Also, fires were often lit in the harvested fields in November to give thanks for the harvest and as a symbolic farewell to the harvest year. This is probably where the tradition of St. Martin's bonfires and lanterns originates.

But not only St. Martin is celebrated in Germany on November, 11. If you happen to seek legal advice on November, 11, in particular at our offices in Cologne you might find slightly tipsy, merry and dressed up “Jecken” (carnival revelers) instead of the serious, composed lawyers you expected. On November, 11, the so-called 5th season, carnival, with Cologne as one of its epicenters in Germany, starts at 11:11 am.

But why November, 11? Again, there are numerous explanations for November, 11 as  the date for the beginning of carnival. One is, that 11 is considered to be a so-called "fool’s number”. Unlike the numbers 10 and 12, which are symbolic numbers in biblical number mysticism, 11 is a profane number. Moreover, 11 is the smallest of the so-called schnaps numbers (a number composed of the same digits, assuming that a drunk person might have a double vision). Another explanation for the meaning of 11 in carnival circles lies in the French Revolution. Thus, rumor has it that the carnival revelers wanted to adopt the slogan "Ègalité, Liberté, Fraternité", since its initial letters spell out ELF, German for eleven.

And even if St. Martin's Day and the beginning of carnival seem to have nothing in common, the reason for both festive traditions could be the beginning of the pre-Christmas lent, which gave reason to extensive celebrations the day before.

Having said this: Enjoy the holiday saison!


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