Statue of St Martin in the Church of St Martini (sic) in Braunschweig
St Martin of Tours is one of the most popular saints in the Roman Catholic Church. His holiday is November 11. It is 40 days before Christmas, and historically speaking, it marks the beginning of a Lenten period before Christmas (which is not observed any more,, instead Advent has become a festive season). St Martin’s Day used to be the date when the servants changed employer, taxes and debts were paid, etc. Like Carnival before the pre-Easter Lent it became a day of festivities and feasts. Roasted goose (Martinsgans) is a typical dish you’ll find on the menu of German restaurants in November. Bakeries offer seasonal pastries made of sweet dough with raisins, for example in the shape of geese (in Baden) or little men with a clay pipe (Rhineland).
In the Carnival regions along the Rhine, November 11 is the beginning of the “campaign”, the new Carnival season. 11 is the jester’s number, which also explains the preference of this date. At 11:11 a.m. sharp the carnival clubs start a ceremony in the main square of the city or town which involves the awakening of a personification of carnival, some funny speeches, and/or storming the town hall and arresting the mayor. Düsseldorf is especially famous for the “Awakening of Hoppeditz”.
However, the jesters return to their holes immediately after to prepare the season. Public carnival events only start in January.
To small children, St Martin’s Day is connected with lantern parades organized by kindergartens, primary schools, and church communities. The kids carry paper lanterns, either self-made or bought from shops. The lanterns are carried with the help of a long stick. (In case you travel with small kids, the lanterns are available in the stationery department of all larger shops.)
In my times (oh I’m growing old) the lanterns were illuminated by real candles. Since you asked, yes now and then one caught fire, these things happen, though rarely. We learned to hold them steady and pay attention to them. (Dangerous? In case, all you had to do was drop it and the fire would die quickly on the wet November pavement. The flow of tears caused by the loss of one’s treasured lantern was harder to stop.) Nowadays the lanterns have little light bulbs and batteries and kiddies throw and sway them around carelessly like just another toy.
In some Catholic regions the parish communities even organize parades with St Martin on horseback. Children enact the best-known scene from the legend: St Martin cutting his coat in two to share it with a freezing half-naked beggar. They perform the traditional songs and receive goodies in return.