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German word of the day: Der Laternenumzug

Forget Halloween – Laternenumzug is the autumn tradition you need to know about while living in Austria (with or without kids). 

Children walk with lanterns through Berlin.
Children walk with lanterns through Berlin. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Britta Pedersen

“Der Laternenumzug” or lantern procession, is an annual celebration in honour of St. Martin’s Day.  While St. Martin’s Day is an occasion celebrated by Catholics across Europe, including the UK, this children’s tradition seems to only be commonplace in German speaking regions (Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Luxembourg and some areas of Belgium, Italy and Poland). 

In Germany, it is more commonly known as Laternelaufen.

As the legend goes, Saint Martin, a Roman soldier, gave a beggar half of his red cloak to protect him during a snowstorm. Through this good deed, Saint Martin is considered the patron saint of travellers and the poor and is seen as an example to children to share and be giving. While this holiday has its roots in Catholicism, it has become commonplace for Austrian children of all faiths to be taught St. Martin’s story and celebrate the occasion through Laternenumzug.

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Once the sun sets on November 11th, children across Austria, and in some other countries, take part in a procession through the streets, carrying handcrafted paper lanterns and singing traditional St. Martin songs. The procession is usually organised through local kindergartens and schools, and the lanterns are often made by the children themselves during their classes. The children are often accompanied by a man dressed as St. Martin in his iconic red cloak.

This procession is also referred to as “der Laternenumzug” or lantern procession. At the end of the walk, you will often find a large St. Martin’s bonfire and a traditional meal of goose, the “Martinsgans” (Martin’s goose), red cabbage and dumplings waiting for you. 

But what do paper lanterns have to do with St. Martin?

As far back as the Middle Ages, to mark the end of the autumn harvest in the Alemannic region of western Upper Germany, traditional lanterns were crafted out of turnips, called “Räbenlichte” (literally: turnip lanterns), with a candle flame in the centre lighting up the vegetable. Turnips were a staple food at the time and their harvest was therefore celebrated in this way.

Traditional roast goose legs with stewed red cabbage are served during celebrations of Saint Martin’s Day, a public holiday. (Photo by ATTILA KISBENEDEK / AFP)

Nowadays the lanterns are no longer made out of turnips, instead children opt for coloured cardboard and tracing paper as tools for creating their glowing pieces of art. Naturally, for safety reasons, the candle of the lantern is now replaced with an LED light. 

So, the two aren’t explicitly linked, but it seems the harvest season overlapped with St. Martin’s day, resulting in today’s celebrations combining the two. Either way, Laternenumzug (also known as “Martinsumzug”) is something children love to take part in, and many adults reminisce over. 

Examples:

Bevor wir mit dem Laternenlaufen beginnen können, müssen wir zuerst unsere Laternen basteln.

Before we go on our lantern walk, we must first make the lanterns.

Morgen ist Sankt Martinstag, das heißt, es ist Zeit für unseren Laternenumzug!

Tomorrow is St. Martin’s Day, which means it is time for our lantern walk!

Haben Sie die Lieder für dem Laternenlaufen schon auswendig gelernt?

Have you memorised the songs for the lantern walk yet?

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GERMAN WORD OF THE DAY

German phrase of the day: Es ist noch kein Meister vom Himmel gefallen

Anyone struggling with learning German (or any big skill) could use this popular piece of reassurance.

German phrase of the day: Es ist noch kein Meister vom Himmel gefallen

Why do I need to know this?

If you’re getting down on yourself for not doing something you are still learning just right – be it playing the piano or speaking German – you can gently comfort yourself with this phrase. Or you can confidently cite it to reassure your perfectionist friend or family member that they are indeed making great strides towards their goal.

What does it mean?

Literally translated as “There is still no master which has fallen from the sky,” the expression gets the idea across that no one is born – or comes pummeling down from the heavens – as an expert at something.

Rather they become a Meister (or at least halfway decent) through continuous hard work and discipline. 

READ ALSO: How to remember the gender of German words

The saying is similar to the also widely used “Übung macht den Meister” (Practice makes the master) or the English version: Practice makes perfect. 

Not surprisingly, Austrians and Germans – who pride themselves on industriously reaching their goals – have several other equivalent sayings. They include “Ohne Fleiß kein Preis” (There’s no prize without hard work) and “Von nichts kommt nichts” (Nothing comes out of nothing).

Where does it come from?

The popular phrase can be traced back to the Latin “Nemo magister natus”, or no one is born a master. Another version is “Nemo nascitur artifex” or no one is born an artist. This explains why so many languages have similar expressions.

What are some examples of how it’s used?

Sei nicht so streng mit dir selbst. Es ist noch kein Meister vom Himmel gefallen.

Don’t be so hard on yourself. No one is born perfect. 

Mein Trainer sagte, es sei noch kein perfekter Schwimmer vom Himmel gefallen.

My coach said that no one is born a perfect swimmer.

READ ALSO: Six German expressions to entice your Wanderlust

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