German word of the day: Die Sternsinger

Blackboard with German word of the day
Photo: Francesco Ungaro / Unsplash + Nicolas Raymond / flickr
As the last of the Christmas decorations are cleared away once more, this adorable word - which relates to a German tradition dating back to the 16th century - is guaranteed to give you one last dose of festive cheer.

Three King’s Day on January 6th is an official holiday in many parts of Germany and is celebrated in many ways. One such tradition is the appearance of “Sternsinger” – translated as star singers or Epiphany singers – who are groups of children who, on “Dreikönigstag” take part in nationwide carol singing. The children go from door to door dressed as the Three Biblical Magi, offering carol blessings and collecting donations for charitable causes, often those aiding children in need.

READ ALSO: German word of the day: Der Barbarazweig

Sometimes the carol singers will write a special blessing on the front doors with chalk, “*C+M+B”. While some believe this to be the initials of the Three Magi, Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar”, it is actually a Latin abbreviation for “Christus mansionem benedicat”, which translates to “Christ blesses this house”. The star represents the star of Bethlehem on the way to the manger and the crosses are signs of blessing.

The general caroling tradition on Epiphany can be traced back to the 16th century, while the campaign for charitable purposes began in 1959. Although it was historically only boys who participated, nowadays children of all genders take part.

It has become an important event of the German holiday calendar, with it even being added to the list of intangible cultural heritages in Germany. However, similar variations have also come about in Catholic regions of Scandinavia, Eastern Europe and even Mexico. Even former Chancellor Angela Merkel received annual visits from Sternsinger – with 108 carol singers travelling to the capital, four from each of Germany’s 27 dioceses, bringing blessings to the Federal Chancellery. 

However, the tradition hasn’t been entirely without controversy. The Three Wise Men are often depicted as men from three different continents (Asia, Europe and Africa), so to represent this, many white children in Germany would paint their faces with black makeup to symbolize Saint Caspar, the African King. While blackfacing was custom in the 18th and 19th century, it is now considered offensive. On December 14th 2021, the Federation of German Catholic Youth in Cologne demanded that the Sternsinger no longer paint their faces black in order to counter discrimination and stand up for diversity. 

READ ALSO: German word of the day: der Weihnachtsbaumschmuck

Generally, the tradition is viewed in a positive light, with over one billion euros raised through it, and 100 percent of the donations going to charities across the world. The campaign has even been lauded as the world’s largest solidarity campaign by children for children. Of course, to ensure that the hard-working children get some kind of reward, they are usually given some sweets too.

Starsingers in Bavaroa

A group of starsingers walk across a bridge in Regensburg, Bavaria. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Armin Weigel

Examples:

Die Weihnachtszeit ist erst vorbei, wenn die Sternsinger vorbeikommen.

The Christmas period isn’t over until the Epiphany singers come by.

In Deutschland feiern wir den Dreikönigstag, indem wir Königskuchen essen und den Sternsingern zuhören.

In Germany we celebrate Epiphany Day by eating King’s cake and listening to the Epiphany singers.


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