The chromolithographs collected below, from a late-nineteenth-century catalog published in Baden-Württemberg, advertise paper lanterns in the style of those still carried during St. Martin’s Day celebrations. They speak perhaps to the changing seasons, a last grasping after the green hills and grinning sun lost to summer memories. These lanterns were manufactured by the C. Riethmüller company, founded in 1855 by the eponymous bookseller, which continues to sell balloons, bunting, and other party goods. Originally the lanterns were shaped with scissors and colored by hand. An unexpected demand for the beautiful objects pushed Riethmüller toward industrial methods, and he soon launched a line of Japanese designs, with salesmen representing his goods in Switzerland, Italy, Spain, and Austria. An 1886 trade magazine for papermakers recommended visiting the Kirchheim-unter-Teck factory to relax below its charming samples, and describes how the company once offered more than 150 varieties of lantern to a global network of clients. With expertise in pulp and printing, Riethmüller constructed the catalogs as elaborately colored demonstrations of industrial precision.
The modern-day St. Martin’s festival on November 11 — celebrated across Europe, but particularly present in German-speaking countries — once had “a pronounced secular character” and was, according to Martin W. Walsh, “a kind of ‘shadow’ Carnival ushering in, instead of ushering out the winter revelling season.” The parallel secular and sacred traditions are maintained to this day, as “Old Halloween” (before the Gregorian calendar, Saint Martin’s Day fell at the beginning of November) is both an important liturgical event and a nondenominational festival of light. Best known for feasts anchored by fatty geese and oxen, “Martelmas” in Britain was historically associated with heavy drinking and hearty revelry: “drinking deepe in tankards large, and bowles of / compasse wide”, as a 1555 text described the festival. Nowadays, especially in the Netherlands, Austria, and Germany, we associate St. Martin’s Day more with innocence and flame rather than the dim fug of a tavern. Lantern parades (Laternelaufen) are held in city streets, as children carry paper lanterns and sing songs to combat autumn’s gloam, strolling toward a bonfire where Glühwein is served to their chaperones. It is not known exactly how lanterns came to be associated with the saint. A figure of charity — famous for cutting his own cloak in two to warm the less fortunate — Martin of Tour’s gift-giving qualities perhaps extend to light itself, coruscating out of lanterns into insatiable darkness.
Nov 9, 2023