A lovely surprise greeted me yesterday as I came out of Epi – the French organic café and pastry shop across Bonn’s largest toy store, Puppen König. I decided to have coffee there instead of at Fried Flamingo, a bit farther away. And there just behind the Münster was a man dressed as a Roman soldier complete with red cape, armour, and helmet, just about to get on a white horse. I hadn’t known the Martinszug — the procession of children and their handmade lanterns in honour of St. Martin of Tours – was scheduled at nightfall, and I was just in time and at the right place to catch it all. It was truly lovely and made my day.
The procession was ordered by school, and each school’s lanterns followed a particular theme – geometric designs à la Mondrian with red, blue, and yellow rectangles, van Gogh-ish starry night patterns, iconic geese. Marching bands accompanied each group and at the same time the Münster’s bells kept up their ringing, that there was such a clamour. But it was all such good local homemade fun. Parents accompanied their children as they marched – all very low key and not one whiff of commercialization or, heaven forbid, “professionalism.” There were only two “floats”, if one could call them that — two live white geese in a cage mounted on a cart and a small model of what I assume is the monastery that St. Martin founded. The procession ended at the Marktplatz, in front of the Old City Hall, where an enormous bonfire was lit.
The 11th of November is the Feast of St Martin or Martinmas. Having been born on this day, I could have been named Martina in his honour had my parents been Catholic. Martin was an early convert to Christianity: as a cavalry soldier in the Roman army in the 4th century AD he refused to fight the Gauls and was jailed — the first recorded conscientious objector. He is also known for sharing his military cloak with a beggar suffering from the cold. To reward him, it is said that Heaven caused the sun to shine brightly on that day and ever since, the weather has always been milder than usual around his feast day – hence St Martin’s Little Summer.
The other name I escaped being given me is Armisticia, after the day armistice was declared in World War I. The date is quite fortuitous – the cessation of the first wide-scale warfare in Europe coinciding with the feast day of the first conscientious objector.
This day, which is regarded as the first day of winter, is also the beginning of Karneval in the Rhineland, making it the longest celebration of Carnival any where. In German, this day is termed “Elften Elften” (11th 11th). In Bonn and throughout Catholic Rhineland, Karneval officially begins at 11 minutes past 11 o’clock. Most people dress up and it is a day of full of craziness and wild merriment. I always get teased by my German friends that I come rightly by my craziness through my birthdate.
It is also the custom to eat goose on this day because according to legend Martin did not wish to be appointed Bishop and hid in a barn, but the geese there made such a racket that he was found out. St Martin is the patron saint of beggars, equestrians, winemakers, alcoholics, and tailors. From the cape (capella) that he tore in half comes the word “chapel” for a small church or sanctuary. This I hadn’t known before, and it is amazing how words evolve – from a piece of apparel to a sanctuary!
In all my 6 years in Bonn, I’d only ever seen a local neighbourhood’s (Dottendorf) St Martin’s Parade. The one I saw yesterday included most of the schools in central Bonn and was truly spectacular. As soon as the parade left the Münster, I proceeded across the street to one of the few remaining locally owned bookshops in Bonn – Witsch, Behrendt, and Schweitzer. As a matter of principle, I’ve now made it a habit to buy from them, because Bouvier, the other local bookstore and a Bonn institution for decades, was bought out by a nationwide chain and sadly had to close down last year. Bouvier was where you could make yourself comfortable on armchairs, choose a book you were considering and cosily browse through and read it, and no one hassled you or even as much as glanced disapprovingly at you. There was a lovely little café in one corner where fresh cookies were baked on the spot, wafting their irresistible aroma.
I bought 3 books, one of them of Robert Frost’s poems, and then headed off for Fried Flamingo, my actual destination for coffee and pastry. I haven’t visited it in quite a while. It was closed, even though it wasn’t yet 7 pm. I hope it hasn’t closed down for good. It had such wonderful French-style macarons and other decadent goodies and gorgeous coffee. To make up for it, I went to the other local bookstore – Bücherhof — near the Old City Hall and got two more lovely books. I know, I know – when it’s books, I cannot help indulging myself.
I am grateful that today is a lovely sunny day, truly St Martin’s Little Summer. Thankful too for a small pile of nice books that I am looking forward to feasting on. And thanks too that this has been a great year, the end of my 63rd. From tomorrow, I start my 64th year. May it be as full of grace and blessings as this one has been.