Saint Martin Parade in Utrecht, 2018.
The Utrecht Saint Martin Celebrations: Reinventing a Heritage for All
Every year on 11 November, people throughout Europe celebrate the name day of Saint Martin of Tours (316-397). Saint Martin was a Roman soldier who, after famously sharing half his cloak with a beggar, converted to Christianity and became a symbol of generosity and solidarity. In the Netherlands, Saint Martin celebrations generally consist of young children going from door to door with paper lanterns, singing songs in exchange for candy or fruit on the evening of Saint Martin’s Day. In the city of Utrecht, however, the Saint Martin feast has over the course of the last fifteen years transformed into a full week of vernacularized rituals and practices, all dedicated to ‘the act of sharing’. The Saint Martin Parade – a participatory lantern parade that includes music, performance art and light sculptures, and that attracts thousands of people every year – has become the highlight of the week, and in 2012 the Utrecht Saint Martin celebrations became recognized as Dutch Intangible Cultural Heritage, protected by UNESCO.
The Utrecht Saint Martin celebrations give insight into how heritage can be consciously reinvented in contemporary contexts. Against the backdrop of the secularization of Dutch society and controversies surrounding Dutch heritage, the leading organizations behind the Utrecht Saint Martin celebrations explicitly frame the feast as ‘a-religious’, inclusive, and diverse, using a moral framework that translates Saint Martin’s values into the ideals of ‘togetherness, sharing and justice’. By means of ethnographic fieldwork, we investigate the transformation of the Utrecht Saint Martin celebrations. What stories are (not) told in the (re)creation of this heritage, and by whom? How does the diverse group of practitioners experience the feast, and what kinds of sentiments and emotions does the Saint Martin Parade in particular evoke?