Otto leaped out of bed. “It’s St. Leonhardi’s Day!” he shouted to his sister. But Martha had already gone downstairs.
The kitchen stove provided a comforting warmth as Otto ran into the room. Martha was brushing her hair.
“When can we leave for the village?” he asked.
“Very soon,” answered his mother.
This was Otto’s favorite holiday. All week long he and his family had been busy preparing for this autumn festival held each November 6 in many villages of southern Germany. As patron saint of the peasants, St. Leonhardi is said to have once bestowed his blessings on the farmers, stables, and animals, especially the workhorses.
In Otto’s village a long procession of men on horseback or in horse-drawn carriages or wagons would wind its way up a long hill to an old church. There the horses and carriages would be blessed and sprinkled with holy water. This part of the celebration was called St. Leonhardi’s Ride.
As long as he could remember, Otto had ridden with his family in their farm wagon. Everyone took great pride in decorating their horses, carriages, or wagons. Garlands of flowers adorned the carriages and also hung around the necks of the groomed horses. The braided manes and tails of the animals were trimmed with ribbons. Otto had stood on a bench to brush their two large workhorses. He then helped Father polish the harnesses and scrub the wagon. Martha and her mother had woven beautiful Alpine meadow flowers into garlands.
At last it was almost time to go. Otto’s father brought the wagon out from the barn, but only Hans was hitched to it.
“Father, are you leaving Greta home?” Otto asked in surprise. Of the two horses, Greta was Otto’s favorite. She was so gentle that Otto often rode her bareback in the fields.
“Go see,” laughed his father.
Otto ran into the barn and saw Greta still tied to a stall. A garland of flowers was around her neck and a new saddle blanket was across her back.
“Greta looks beautiful,” said Otto. “But why are you going to ride her?”
“I’m not,” answered his father. “But I thought you might like to!”
Otto was stunned. His dream of riding alone in the St. Leonhardi procession was finally coming true!
“Thank you, Father,” said Otto proudly. “May I go by Karl’s house and see if he is ready? We’ll catch up with you.”
“Yes,” answered Father, “but hurry.”
Karl had his own small horse with a beautiful saddle, and he was starting to leave his yard when Otto rode up.
“You’re not riding that old thing are you?” Karl asked derisively.
“Of course I am,” snapped Otto. “This festival honors workhorses, not fancy riding horses.”
“Ha! But my horse can work too,” bragged Karl.
The boys had ridden only a short distance when they came upon a wagon that had slipped off the road. Two wheels were lodged in a ditch that was muddy from recent rains. A young man was trying to get his old horse to pull the wagon back onto the road, and an elderly priest was behind the wagon trying to push.
“Can you help us?” asked the young man.
“I’m afraid not,” answered Karl quickly. “Our horses have been groomed and we don’t want to get them muddy.” With that he rode off swiftly toward the village.
Otto could see a beautiful garland of flowers inside the wagon. They must also be going to the festival, he thought. “My horse can get you out,” he offered.
With the help of the young man and some rope from his wagon, Greta started to pull. Slowly she dug in with her strong forefeet and then her hindquarters gave her the power to move forward. As she lowered her head, the garland of flowers around her neck slipped off. Otto watched as the wagon wheels rolled over it. Another pull and the wagon was back on the road.
The old priest patted Greta. “You were kind to help us, and I’m sorry about the flowers and the mud all over your horse,” he said gently.
“That’s OK,” said Otto, trying hard not to sound disappointed.
By the time Otto reached the village, the narrow streets were crowded with horses, carriages, and farm wagons. The master of ceremonies and the burgermeister (mayor) were directing everyone into a parade-like formation. Otto and Greta were pushed in behind a beautiful carriage. The driver was handsomely dressed and wore a felt top hat trimmed with a green ribbon.
“Hey, Otto,” whispered Karl. “Greta’s a mess! You can’t be in the procession.”
Otto turned to see Karl riding up behind him. “Well, I’m in it and I’m not taking Greta out,” said Otto.
Just then the church bells chimed. It was nine o’clock and the procession began.
The master of ceremonies and the burgermeister led, followed by the town band stepping along smartly to its own music. The clopping of all the horse hooves harmonized with the music. Behind the band came the many festively decorated horses, carriages, and wagons. The women looked beautiful in their holiday costumes and their big braided buns clasped by silver hairpins. Many of the men wore rich brown dress coats and felt hats.
The procession marched over the bridge and up the steep slope to the small chapel high above the Isar River. At the top of the hill Otto could see the flower-decorated platform where several priests stood. He stared in amazement, for the guest of honor was the old priest whose wagon had been in the ditch!
As the procession slowly passed the platform, all were blessed and sprinkled with holy water. But as Otto and Greta approached the platform, the old priest held up his hand in a halting motion. The entire procession stopped! Everyone wondered why, since this had never happened before.
The old priest leaned over and picked up a beautiful garland of flowers that had been draped over his chair. Otto recognized it as the same wreath that had been in the young man’s wagon. Then the priest stepped off the platform and walked directly to Otto and Greta. Otto could feel his heart pounding. And all around him he could hear voices whispering.
The priest reached up and slipped the garland of flowers over Greta’s neck. “Bless you both,” he said gently and walked back to the platform.
The procession continued and then slowly started back down the steep hill leading to the market center, where the people all were to gather to eat and visit with one another. Later the young men would stage a contest in whipcracking, an ancient and highly respected art in Bavaria.
This year, however, the attention did not center on the whipcracking contest, for the people crowded around Otto and Greta to ask questions:
“Why did the priest come to you?”
“What did he say?”
“Why did he give your horse the flowers from his chair?”
“Why is your horse spattered with mud?”
Otto tried to answer all the questions and at the same time look around. But there was one person he could not find. Karl was nowhere to be seen!