In October every year, German schools worldwide prepare for St. Martin’s Day. St. Martin was a Roman soldier who, upon entering the city gates, cut his cloak in half and gave half of it to a freezing beggar. He was only baptized as an adult, and later on became a monk, living a life of poverty and charity.
Most schools act out the story, and some can get very elaborate – especially if someone connected with the school owns a horse. I’ve seen a real live horse ride onto the school soccer field carrying St. Martin. Mostly though, it’s a ragtag affair, with paper costumes and swords, and 4th graders stuttering through the story on a microphone on a makeshift stage. Usually involving lots of feedback, and sometimes a power outage. After the story is told, the children walk through the school grounds and the neighborhood with handmade lanterns, singing songs about light, stars, and St. Martin.
In October in India, kids began thinking of Diwali, the Indian Festival of Lights. Diwali is often compared to Christmas with respect to its importance in the Hindu religion. During this time, Hindu families begin scrubbing their homes, throwing out old things, and resetting for a new year. Many businesses close their books and open new accounts on Diwali. The preparation for Diwali is to welcome the goddess Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, to the home. The more festive and clean the home, the more likely she is to enter.
It is also the time when Hindus celebrate the return of the god Rama and his wife, Sita, from the land of the demons. For a more in-depth and detailed description of Diwali, see our good friend Wikipedia again – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diwali In the German School Bombay, the story of Rama and Sita is told along with the story of St. Martin.
Of course, with all school celebrations, the mommies get roped into doing Extra Stuff, and you guessed it – I got roped. While the English section of the school was off making Diwali sweets, the German section got tasked with making “Weckmaenner”. Weckmaenner are often called “gingerbread men”, but nothing could be further from the truth. In truth, they are heavy blobs of tasteless dough, studded with raisins and brushed with egg wash. Most of the kids hate them, and their headless carcasses litter the playground and parking lot after every St. Martin’s Fest.
After a lot of emailing and discussion, I got assigned to bake with my friend, R. Even though I have a GIANT American-sized oven, R insisted that we bake at her house, so on the appointed day I packed up my cookie cutters, rolling pin, baking sheets and some quick-rise yeast and V and I headed off to R’s house.
When we arrived, R was relaxing at her dining room table, and her helper, M, was in the kitchen with all sorts of ingredients at the ready.
“So, should we get started?”
“Sure, you want something to drink?”
“Water would be great.”
“How about champagne?”
The morning and afternoon then degenerated into one of those expat Stepford days that you hear rumor about – the maids in the kitchen baking and the expat wives off drinking and “supervising”. I might be embarrassed about that. Then again, I just might not give a damn.
After the first 10 minutes, we started to smell vanilla. Like REALLY smell it. Germans use “vanilla sugar” to bake, and it’s not that strong, so we had to investigate. Turns out that V and M had a disagreement over how much vanilla sugar to add, and put in 8x the normal recipe called for. After a few minutes and lot of cooking math, we doubled the recipe and then decided that the extra vanilla certainly couldn’t ruin the horrible things. By the time the Weckmaenner were almost finished, we were tipsy off of either the vanilla aroma bomb or the champagne, it was hard to tell, really.
In order to take a little credit, we had to do a few things though, right? So we made the “Yoda Weckmaenner”, the old-fashioned way, with no cookie cutter and complete with funky ears.
Eventually, we left for the school, all dressed in Indian clothing and carrying about four dozen Weckmaenner.
The school was all lit up and so beautiful.
The kids had made tons of lanterns and the staff had set up flower decorations on the floor called “rangoli”.
We watched the kids act out the stories. As usual, the 4th graders did the story of St. Martin. Except this year it was kind of “St. Martine”, as a girl was St. Martin. We are nothing if not progressive at the German school.
Even better was the Ramayana – the story of Ram and Sita. That was done by Reception – the 4-year-olds. The part of Ram was played by a little boy who has an African dad, and he was awesome. He was loud, happy, and his African accent was a nice touch for this Missing Africa Girl. It was sort of like tying all my lives together in one performance – Indian story, African kid, German school, English language.
Finally, it was time for the Lanternumzug – the lantern parade. DiploBoy 2 got his lantern and he and his friends paraded around the garden while some of the older kids, including DiploBoy 1, sang songs.
Afterwards, the kids turned in their light sticks (thankfully no tea lights were used this year – you’d be surprised the number of times I’ve seen a lantern go up in flames). The trade was pretty good, I think – a light stick for a Weckmaenner.
Soon, however, word got out. Everyone was coming over to us and asking for our Weckmaenner – they were the only ones that tasted good! Mental Note: Use special V & M recipe next year!
After some Diwali treats and a little more fun and festivities, we headed home. What a fantastic way to celebrate two different cultures together.