Last Friday, Silas came home with a hand-written note dictated by the teacher, “J’ai besoin d’un baton pour lundi.” I need a stick for Monday.
From the day we’d arrived at Ecole Steiner Haute-Alsace, the school had been preparing for this – La fête de la Saint Martin with its lantern walk. Every child, even the youngest, had been making colourful lanterns – the older the child, the more complex the design. In the Jardin d’enfants, Delphine and the other little children had painted sheets of paper that the teachers then rolled into cylinders for their lanterns. Silas had applied papier maché (how French) around a balloon and had vastly enjoyed bursting it afterwards. He was then left with his globe-shaped lantern, to which the requested “baton” would be attached as a handle.
The day before the Fête, the children in the Jardin d’enfants made bread and studded it with sultanas and the walnuts. In the corner of the room, there is a big box of recently harvested walnuts and all morning, the children had been breaking them out of their cases with nutcrackers. The fruits of their efforts were folded into the dough.
With the smell of bread baking in the oven, we learned our lantern walk songs:
“Je marche avec ma lanterne, ma lanterne marche avec moi…”
“I walk with my lantern, my lantern walks with me.”
Thankfully Silas had been singing this song for the last couple of days, so Delphine and I were quick to pick it up. In fact, we must have been singing with obvious confidence because Delphine’s teacher asked with surprise whether we sing this song in Australia.
We don’t, in fact. But we had sung a similar English version earlier this year when our school had held the same festival in the freezing cold of a July Canberra evening. There had been the same handmade lanterns and the same night time walk. But I knew that, although similar, this Alsace lantern festival would have its own characteristic flavour.
One point of distinction was the timing of the festival to coincide with Saint Martin’s Day. The story dates from the fourth century when a young solider converted to Christianity against the wishes of his family who feared his new religion would be incompatible with a military career. They were right, and he eventually left the army and later became the bishop of the French town of Tours. But it was while still a solider that his most well-known act of kindness took place. One frosty autumn evening, Martin spied a homeless person shivering by the side of the road. With nothing to offer to warm him, Saint Martin withdrew his sword and cut his cape in two, using one half as a blanket to comfort the unfortunate soul.
In yet another northern-southern hemisphere mismatch, Saint Martin’s day is 11 November. Springtime for us in Australia but during the ebbing autumn here in France. So Saint Martin’s story has been woven into the annual lantern festival, which in itself probably draws from pagan rituals of keeping the light burning as the days shorten towards winter.
And lighten the night we did. As dusk fell, children and parents began to gather in the school garden. Lanterns were slung on poles amassed under a small marquee awaiting their diminutive bearers. It was a charming scene, but I was feeling some disquiet.
Were they really intending to light that candle in Delphine’s lantern and have her walk, carrying a live flame, through the forest? She hadn’t done her midday nap that day and was already showing signs of that particular jazzed hyperactivity that I know too well.
So it was with both anticipation and faint dread that I saw the teachers nonchalantly passing through the crowd lighting children’s lanterns. And then, after a short safety briefing and welcome message, off we filed: the littlest ones first followed by the next age-group up on so on. Silas, too excited to really listen to the instructions, skipped merrily right behind the lead teacher proudly singing “Je marche avec ma lanterne…” pitch imperfect, but in flawless French.
I was a little less carefree. With my lantern in one hand and with my other trying to discreetly guide Delphine’s precariously swinging one, I was in high alert parental mode. Yet, from the corner of my focused eye, I could just register the sight of the blinking snake of lantern walkers trailing behind us.
Along the suburban street and then into the forest we went. With my unpredictable and over-excited three year-old, the walk seemed long and particularly dark. I’d completely lost Silas, but had faith he’d find his way through. As the rest of the lantern song says, the stars would show him the way. Meanwhile, I was praying that God would show me the way to delicately direct a wayward three-year old without provoking a tantrum.
The golden glow of the school was a welcome site. A bonfire blazed near the yellow walls reflecting the light like a homing beacon. We gathered around the fire. Here, impressively costumed teachers gave us a short performance of the Saint Martin cloak ripping scene and we all sang a few more rounds of lantern songs.
Silas was disappointed that the performance hadn’t lasted longer but he was mollified by the arrival of hot soup and school-made bread. We hung our still lit lanterns on cords strung around the playground and under this glowing garland shared our supper side by side with our new school community.
After our meal, the children revelled in the forbidden pleasure of playing outside after dark as I chatted with fellow parents. It felt both extraordinary and ordinary. We hadn’t even been here for two weeks and already this was starting to feel like home. This school community had made us newcomers feel not just welcomed but had fully embraced us as one of the group.