November 11th is St. Martin’s Day. Tomorrow evening in Germany, as it gets dark, children carrying paper lanterns they’ve made at home or in Kindergarten will gather with their parents to sing songs and walk in a procession – perhaps led by a figure on horseback. Afterwards, they’ll warm themselves around a bonfire.
The bonfire and lanterns surely relate to other ancient traditions that mark the end of the agricultural year and the beginning of the dark winter throughout northern Europe. But the children’s songs specifically commemorate Saint Martin, a Roman soldier who distinguished himself in the 4th Century AD. Riding on his horse, Martin is said to have come upon a beggar, shivering in the cold. Having nothing else to offer, he cut his cloak in two with his sword and gave one half to the beggar.
It’s a powerful story for teaching young children about Nächstenliebe. The Bible says, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” Nächstenliebe is a compound noun that packs that idea into a single word, meaning love for one‘s neighbor or, literally, love for the next guy.
These days, the word Nächstenliebe figures prominently in public discourse. The number one topic, naturally, is the Flüchtlingskrise – the refugee crisis. Germany is committed to accepting 800,000 asylum seekers – a number that corresponds to 1% of the country’s population. The construction of temporary housing began long ago, but the sheer flood of migrants has overwhelmed the original plans. Now, towns and cities all over Germany are struggling to erect temporary shelters that can withstand the winter cold.