Every year on the 11th of November, the Netherlands celebrates St. Martin’s Day (Sint-Maarten). St. Martin’s Day is an old harvest festival that is celebrated in many European countries and precedes the fasting period of Advent. It is named after St. Martin of Tours, a revered European saint who was known for his kindness to strangers. St. Martin was known as a friend of the children and patron of the poor. This holiday originated in France, then spread to the Low Countries, the British Isles, Germany, Scandinavia, and Eastern Europe.
Historically, the feast of Saint Martin was marked by a meal of roast goose which was shared with the homeless. The poor children celebrated the last remnants of the summer harvest with candlelit processions, during which the adults would give them nuts and candy as a final treat before the darkest days of winter. The modern celebration is for children to go door to door – especially to homes with a front light on or some sort of light decorations – with lanterns, typically made from paper or large, hollowed-out beets and sing Sint Maarten songs in exchange for candy. What probably started as a custom that let poor children beg for alms during the difficult winter times has become a fun holiday.
Dutch children create decorated paper lanterns and wander around the streets in small groups singing songs and reciting poems. Traditionally, the children’s lanterns were made of hollowed out turnips or sugar beets dangling on a string tied to a stick. These lantern processions are known as keuvelen or ruusbuzen. In the Limburg province of the Netherlands, the processions sometimes end at a bonfire, called a vreugdevuur or troshoop.
Locals give children traditional sweets and candies. Mainly children are given chocolates, licorice, mandarine oranges, apples, pears, nut brittles, Oliebollen and pancakes.
If you are lucky to be in the Netherlands on this day you may attend the celebration with your children. The only thing you will need is the lantern. You can create it by yourself or buy it in the closest supermarket. If you do not speak dutch and don’t know any traditional songs you still can join the celebration and sing along any song you like. There are no strict rules about the song and poems to recite. It is the great opportunity to learn about Dutch culture and have some fun with your children.