I’ve now done several laternenfests with my kids. I started out with great excitement, thinking how lucky I was to experience this magical children’s occasion. St Martin’s Day, I’d never heard of it before moving to Germany. When we first moved here, without kids, I saw a couple of groups of kids and parents weaving through the park, dangling their little glowing lights. My womb ached a little in anticipation. Then I had kids and could finally be part of it myself: get outside in the fresh, cool air with my cherubs, carrying twinkly lanterns that we lovingly crafted together and sing pretty songs. What a privilege.
However, after three goes at it, here’s why I’ve had to admit to myself that it completely sucks:
- It’s an outdoor event, in November. Halloween is just snagging the end of the line of sensibility for outdoor events. Especially when you’re heading into the very unique, and special goddamn freezing Berlin winter. But St Martin’s Day is a week and a half later. This can make a big difference. It has rained every single time I’ve done it, and been goddamn freezing.
- It’s for the adults not the children. I now believe that laternenfest is mainly to help the parents remember their own childhood. They sing those laternen songs through rose-tinted glasses like their lives depend on it. They bring kinderpunsch in paper beakers that dissolve in the rain. They bring giant pretzels that don’t fit into tiny mouths. They (me) buy a load of croissants because they were on their first work trip in four years and didn’t have time to bake something and now feel bad and ashamed. I mean, the event sounds great on paper, but let’s face it, the kids don’t care. Many of them cry a lot. This year, Charlie refused to hold the lantern at all. He just stood on the buggy eating giant pretzels and biscuits, ignoring both me and his kita friends and even refused to sing the songs, which he loves singing at home.
- Those damn lanterns. Lanterns are just not designed for this event, or for the world in general. The first laternenfest, I figured Charlie wouldn’t care much, so I bought him a cheap paper one with a tiger on it, and a light stick with a hanging LED light to go inside. The light stick (made very badly in China) was thrashed around, making the tiger look like a freshly hooked fish, and after several minutes it started flickering, then soon afterwards, gave no light anymore. And this was on the way home from the toy shop, before the actual fest. I had to go back and buy more, twice, handing over yet more wasted cash to the smiling, knowing child catcher… I mean toy shop lady. Then at the event, the tiger was ripped into shreds from more thrashing around, then melted in the rain; its remains hanging limply on the buggy on the way home, before we had to put it down (humanely, in the recycling bin). This happens every year. Actually, Charlie didn’t break his for once this year, but mostly because he refused to carry it at all.
- The possibility of a child going on fire. I guess the same person who thought putting candles on a Christmas tree was a good idea, also dreamed up children carrying round paper cylinders with REAL FIRE in them. Children. WITH REAL FIRE. Carried IN THEIR HANDS. INSIDE PAPER. A friend recently told me that at her laternenfest, they had real-fire tiki torches, and children and adults were putting powder in their mouths, and breathing fire. BREATHING FIRE. REAL FIRE. FROM THEIR MOUTHS. CHILDREN.
- Younger siblings. Having a smaller child at this event can be a nightmare. They’re upset and want food and are cold and yet refuse to wear gloves or a hat. So you’re stuck with a cold, miserable child who you have to keep feeding biscuits to, who then gets home and refuses to eat any dinner and cries some more because you made him have such a rubbish evening.
- Song sheets. They just don’t last in the rain. The ink bleeds and the paper collapses, and you end up la-la-ing badly, and then you get labelled as the foreigner who doesn’t care about learning German customs (this last part is not true and only in my head).
In the hope that my Novembers are not doomed forever, here are things I have learned that can make this event a little more tolerable:
- Bring food but don’t put it all out. Keep some from your kids who will be starving and cranky in the cold. Keep something nicer than you give the other kids so you can bribe them to be nice/stay still/sing along with the songs/get in the buggy and go home.
- Buy a very small lantern. The standard lantern size is about half the height of a normal-sized kid. This is too big. It makes them a) not want to carry it, b) drop it on the ground all the time, c) rest it on the ground and then lose connection with the wire hook so you have to put it on again, and again, and again and abloodygain. Which leads to…
- Sellotape every corner and bend and connection you can find in your lantern and the wires holding it to the stick. There’s nothing worse than having to reunite the lantern with its stick every five seconds. In the dark. Eventually the wire will break, and you’ll give your child (yourself) another reason to hate this magical event.
- Make (or buy) something very cheap. Milk cartons, transparent paper with stickers on it, papier maché… They are just as good and the kids get a lot more pleasure from something they haphazardly glued together than some fancy perfect shiny thing. And you don’t mind when it melts in the rain. As it will. We went to a little art workshop one year and Charlie made his own chaotic but beautiful one. Unfortunately this was, of course, mostly destroyed before his laternenfest. Instead we used the best one so far, a tiny one he made at kita with just a paper cylinder with stickers and scribbles on it, inside a plastic cylinder, stapled down the side. It was attached to a small stick with a tonne of wire (thanks kita lady) which meant it couldn’t fall off, no matter how much it was thrashed. .
- But know your child. Charlie is just not really a crafter. I mean, he can concentrate to do certain things, but anything we’ve tried to make, I’ve ended up making myself while he either cries or suddenly finds that Peppa Pig has come on the TV. This goes for lanterns too. I think this year it was Ben and Holly that helped me have this beautiful handcrafting moment without my child.
- Buy early. Those light sticks quickly become as rare as dodo eggs. German parents know that they can get them cheap in DM or Rossman and buy the three they need to survive the thrashing very early. Don’t get stuck and have to stick your phone with its torch on inside the lantern (I nearly did this today when the damn stupid cheap Chinese lights threatened to die again).
- Bring extra clothes, and rain clothes, and spare clothes. Did I mention, the weather is always rubbish? Don’t let the cold be another reason for a tantrum.
- Stay in. This does not mean you shouldn’t go to your laternenfest, you most absolutely should. But this year, my little one’s group had his indoors. It was heavenly. We sang songs (I played guitar, with my two boys either side of me, and was a very happy mama), we ate waffles, we didn’t thrash lanterns around, and no fingers or toes froze.
- Leave when no one’s looking. There are no rules to say you have to stay until the bitter(ly cold) end. There will first be a few songs standing in a group, for which you should be present. Then there will be an ‘umzug’, or a little procession around the park. By then it will be dark. Find a bush and run behind it and let everyone walk past. Then escape down a dark pathway. Everyone else will be too busy taming their own kids’ tantrums/deciphering the bleeding-ink songsheet/sellotaping a damn lantern/removing giant pretzels from the buggy wheels to notice you’re gone.
- Take photos. I always make sure I take a few pictures so we will, in time, only remember this as a truly magical annual event, and my own children will sing the songs like their lives depend on it, while their kids thrash the lanterns.