Streets across Berlin and the rest of Germany and Austria are lit up every November in a fascinating and unique celebration as children begin their countdown to Christmas festivities. You might know this German celebration as Sankt Martinstag or Laternenumzug. If you’re a parent of a small child, you’re especially going to want to read on.
What is the Laternenumzug?
Literally translated, the German word Laternenumzug refers to a lantern parade, and that’s exactly what happens. Children walk through the streets carrying lanterns, either with real flames inside or with electric lamps (a controversial topic we will discuss later!) At the front of the parade, there might be a brass ensemble playing traditional songs or an actor playing the role of Sankt Martin, sometimes even on horseback.
And what does it have to do with Sankt Martinstag?
The Laternenumzüge are usually held on or around the 11th of November, when the Christian festival of Sankt Martinstag falls each year. Its purpose is to remember Martin of Tours, a 4th-century Roman soldier. After a spiritual awakening, he converted to Christianity and later became a bishop in Tours (now France), performing many miracles before being canonised after his death.
Although commemorated on the 11th of November by Protestants, Catholics and Anglicans alike, his celebration is not an official holiday in Germany. Schools and Kitas schedule the event on a day that suits them, usually in mid-November, to commemorate the occasion.
Let’s talk about lanterns. You can make them at home with your child, turning it into a fun arts and crafts activity, or you can buy one in a shop or online, if you want to avoid the stress of making your own! All kinds of materials, like wood, plastic or paper, work. You might spend hours making a beautiful lantern at home, adorned with autumn leaves that you gathered lovingly at the park, only to have your child suddenly have a meltdown as they covet their best friend’s slightly bigger and more colourful same-day dollar-shop purchase. Or vice versa. So the most important thing is that your child participates and enjoys the parade.
Songs are also an important part of the Laternenumzug. If your child is at Kita, they’ll post some autumn songs on the notice boards and practice them with the kids in the weeks leading up to Laternenumzug – by your child’s third year of Kita, you should know a few off-by-heart. They tend to stay in the favourites list until Easter at the earliest. We’ve attached a few links below:
Laterne, Laterne (warning, this one is an Ohrwurm 👂🪱)
Ich gehe mit meiner Laterne
We take no responsibility if your child listens to these songs on repeat and drives you mad! But there is no avoiding it, so you may as well start practising and join in.
Fire or lamps? Pros and cons
Every year, the debate arises whether real candles should be used to light lanterns, and the dangers that come with this, or whether battery-operated light bulbs are a better and safer option. In fact, many childcare centres decide to prohibit candlelit lanterns for safety reasons, especially when the children are younger in age. Your call!
Pro Tip: some little electric light bulbs actually flicker like candles, so they might even fool your kids.
What can you do as parents?
- Whatever lantern your child has, make sure that it is safe and appropriate for use in a busy parade.
- Check which Laternenumzug your child will take part in! Many childcare centres and schools hold their own celebrations, but they also take place across the city for the general public. So no one should miss out! For a full list of Laternenumzüge this November, the official Berlin website is a great starting place.
- Get cracking on the crafts table (or head to the 1 Euro shop on the way to the parade)
- Start practising the songs or just learn them through osmosis as the years roll by