Cover image Thomas Guffler, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Sternsinger der Katholischen Propsteigemeinde “St. Peter und Paul” Dessau mit dem Oberbürgermeister von Dessau-Roßlau, Klemens Koschig, vor dem Rathaus
In the days leading up to January 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany, you might see groups of children dressed in robes and wearing a crown going house to house. One of the children, or an adult guide, carries a pole… and at the top, a Star. At each home they sing special carols, leave a blessing, and leave with a donation, and perhaps a few sweets. These Sternsinger in Germany (Star Singers) act out a tradition that can be traced to the Middle Ages. Today, the children, organized by the Federation of German Catholic Youth, are an important part of the Children helping Children program, and the money raised is sent to children’s organizations around the world.
Matthew 2 9-11 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
The History of the Sternsinger in Germany
Today, we associate the Sternsinger in Germany with children, but it wasn’t always so. During the Middle Ages, plays and songs explained the liturgy and Bible stories in a simple (and entertaining) way for the masses to understand. By the 10th century, the plays were quite common. The church approved since it increased the understanding of the Bible’s stories, and kept people interested. A great example of liturgical plays is the Passion Play at Oberammergau… and how many of us have enjoyed the Nativity plays put on by church Sunday School children? The Epiphany Play, based on a passage in Matthew (chapter 2 verses 9-12) was set by the 11th century in the city of Freising. A document called the “Officium Stellae Frisingense” laid out the songs and story (and even stage directions).
The Reformation of the 16th century brought tremendous change to the Church. The over time the Epiphany plays evolved to carol singing. Men dressed in robes and wore crowns led the procession carrying a star on a pole. Behind them were schoolmasters took students out to tell stories about the birth of Jesus (some even carried a nativity set), and sing in public in exchange for small gifts of sweets, nuts, and even money.
But naturally, not all of the groups were singing for altruistic reasons. Poor children dressed in robes and a crown to collect money for themselves with songs. Then when drunken men began singing and collecting money in pubs, the authorities stepped in. In Freising, the practice was eventually banned. While in other places, the custom slowly faded away. By the 19th century, Sternsinging had all but vanished from Germany.
In the 1950s, the tradition was remembered in Germany and Austria, and the traditions of Sternsinger were reintroduced. By 1958, Catholic Germany embraced the custom with a twist. Now, the singers would be children, and the money raised used for children’s missions around the globe.
Sternsinger in Germany
The Sternsinger are part of a children’s aid organization overseen by the Catholic Church working with the BDKJ (Bund der Deutschen Katholischen Jugend) Federation of German Catholic Youth. YES! These kids are all singing for charity! Today, around 300,000 children from 10,000 parishes across Germany participate in the program. Once the program was for boys only, in more recent years, boys and girls participate as Sternsinger. Kids go out in groups of three dressed in robes and a crown to resemble the three kings, Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, and a leader who carries the star on a pole. Like the three kings in Matthew, the children carry “gifts” to complete the look.
(side note- the three kings were understood to come from Europe, Asia, and Africa, and since the 8th century, using the black makeup was to represent Caspar, who came from Africa. Today the Federation of German Catholic Youth recommends avoiding the makeup, and allowing the diversity of the children to represent the diversity of the kings. Click here for a nicely written article on the topic)
At each home they introduce themselves as the wise men from the Morgenland (Orient). Then they sing a song and maybe recite a poem. (A gift of incense may be given, a Rauhnächte practice that dates back to the when clergy would smoke the house with incense to clear it of spirits.) Then the home is consecrated with chalked initials C+M+B (“Christus Mansionem Benedicat”) and the date over the door. The children collect a monetary donation for the mission charity, and maybe get a few sweets that they are allowed to keep.
Millions of dollars have been collected by Sternsinger to help support schools and children’s health around the globe.
In 2015, this special caroling by Sternsinger recieved UNESCO World Heritage Intangible Cultural Heritage status since the regional songs are handed from generation to generation, and hold an important place in German heritage.
See the Sternsinger in action…
To learn more about the mission of the Sternsinger, see them in action, hear the latest news, and maybe drop something into their donation box, click here for the official Sternsinger website
Click here to get the lyrics for Sternsinger songs