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Laternen, Nikolaus-Stiefel und Schützenfeste

Dear readers,

When I first heard about this topic, I thought that there are way to many celebrations in Germany to talk about every one in any depth. Therefore, I’m going to write about celebrations coming up soon and also typical for where I’m from. I chose three which I will elaborate upon more in the following.


On the 11th of November, some regions in Germany, especially Catholic, celebrate the “Martinstag,” or also known as St. Martin’s Day. The day is supposed to remind people of St. Martin of Tours, who first was a Roman soldier and then became a monk. He was known for being a kind man who led a simple life. His most famous legend is that during a snowstorm he cut his cloak in half to share with a beggar, saving him from freezing to death. The same night, St. Martin dreamed that Jesus wore a half-cloak, being the beggar who he saved.

St. Martin is known as the patron of the poor and friend of children. Originating in France, the holiday spread to Germany, Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. People celebrate the end of the agrarian year and start of harvesting.

Traditionally, the nights before and on the night of the 11th of November, children walk in a big group carrying their self-made lanterns from kindergarten and school, while singing Martin songs. The walk often starts at a church and ends at a public place. In some places, a man on horseback who is dressed like St. Martin leads the children. After arriving at their destination, a Martin’s bonfire is sometimes lit and Martin’s pretzels are eaten. In my hometown, we usually did this in kindergarten, making our own lanterns before and walking through town. There was no person on a horse, though.

Especially in the Rhineland and Bergisches Land, there is also another procession next to the walk with the lantern which I also grew up with. Children go from house to house, sing Martin’s song, and get candy in return. This is like Halloween in the US and children look forward to this all year.


“Nikolaustag” (Nikolaus day) is on the 6th of December and a special day for children in Germany.

It follows the surviving legends of Saint Nicholas who brought presents. Niklaus of Myra lived 1700 years ago and he helped the poor and children by giving them gold and presents. The American Santa Claus and British Father Christmas are derived from the Saint Nicholas legends.

In Germany many children put their “Nikolaus-Stiefel” (Nikolaus boot) outside the front door on the evening of the 5th of December and also cleaned them. The story says that during the night, Saint Nikolaus comes and brings gifts and sweets, putting them in their clean boots. He also goes to the children and checks if they have been good or bad throughout the year. If they were bad, instead of getting sweets, they will have a “Rute” (tree branch) in their boots. Saint Nikolaus’ partner is Knecht Ruprecht, who makes sure children say their prayers and if not, he puts ashes in them or beats them with a stick.


The “Schützenfest” (marksmen’s festival) is a traditional festival or fair in Germany and Switzerland, where a competition with target shooting is held. During the Schützenfest, the contestants are put into different groups based on their shooting abilities, and have to shoot a wooden representation of an eagle. The one who demounts the last pieces of the wooden bird is the new “Schützenkönig” (king of marksmen).

In Germany, the Schützenfest is mostly celebrated in Bavaria, Lower-Saxony, the Lower- and Middle Rhine regions, and Westphalia. Starting in the 15th century, honorable citizens were responsible to keep the order within the cities with their crossbows and rifles. This lasted until the French Revolution, after which it was replaced by the festival and fair, characterized by dancing, shooting, and drinking alcohol, and being open only for men.

The actual “Schützenfest” can range from one to several days with several events. Often there is a festive procession, where the reigning King of the Marksmen escorts the people to the square of the festivities. A royal parade with marching and fanfare bands follow, along with parade of color guards who march along. They all meet at a pavilion which is surrounded by a funfair.

The largest marksmen’s funfair in the world is in Hanover, Lower-Saxony, with more than 5,000 marksmen and 250 rides and inns. It also has the longest parade in the world with more than 10,000 participants and 100 bands.

I knew about the “Schützenfest” when I grew up because there was one in my hometown every year and you could join and see the parade walking through the streets with their nice costumes and bands marching and playing. While living in Hanover, I was also at the annually held “Schützenfest” with its many rides and food stands.

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