In Germany, epiphany is celebrated on January 6th. In the Church Calendar, this is the date that the Bible’s Wise Men brought gifts to baby Jesus in his stable in Bethlehem. Today in Germany this date is a public holiday. Special church services take place and children dress up as Star Singers and visit people door to door to collect both coins and treats, while men go door to door dressed up as kings and bless houses using chalk and write the acronyms C, M and B, the names of the three kings.
The Sternsinger custom originates from the 16th Century. Today, since 1959, this custom in German-speaking European countries has become a fundraising event referred to as Aktion Dreikönigssingen, or Operation of the Three Kings Singing.
In Germany, this yearly event is sponsored by both the Catholic church and youth organizations. Most participants are boys and girls who dress up in costumes similar in appearance to those worn by the Magi when they came to visit the baby Jesus. The leader carries a star and the costumed Star Singers stride from house to house singing special traditionally known Star Singer carols. At each home they ask for donations for different German children’s charities, and programs to end starvation in different areas of the world. In Catholic districts, in particular, small towns and rural areas, the Star Singers may also inscribe the C, M and B house-blessing inscriptions.
The Epiphany being the 12th day of Christmas for many, it is the day when the holiday season reaches the end.
What is the Epiphany?
Prior to the 4th Century, Christ’s birth, Jesus’s Epiphany, was celebrated on January 6. The date was eventually officially shifted to 25th Dec by Pope Julius I because Mary discovered she was pregnant on 25th March with the Son of God. The Annunciation, and 25th Dec, is 9 months later, so the date for Christmas really made quite a lot of sense.
In the book of Matthew, the Magi, kings or wise men, found out about Christ’s birth, so travelled from the east by following a star. On the 6th January Germans celebrate the Magi’s arrival at the stable in Bethlehem where they bring presents to the Christ Child.
Three gifts were brought. These were frankincense (an incense or perfume), gold and Myrrh (an anointing oil). The presents were important as they were never given to ordinary people. Today, in Cologne Cathedral, there is an ornate shrine and a gold box which contains the bones of the Magi and holds a position of honour.
A legend states that St. Helena discovered them in Constantinople, so brought them back home. They were kept in Milan until in the 12th century Emperor Barbarossa brought them to Cologne. Perhaps this is why the Epiphany means so much to Germans. In the southern part of Germany, and in Austria, Sternsinger (Star Singers) is found when children in groups of 3 dress up like the Magi and go door to door singing special Carols. After singing, the children write their initials on the door frame in exchange for cookies or a charitable donation.
This tradition started back in the 16th Century following the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Church didn’t have much money, so the children took part in singing to help provide support to their schools. As time passed the tradition spread far and wide beyond the students of the Catholic Church, and became a regular event for all children.
The processions today are typically organized by communities now while cash is raised for charity both at home and abroad put away decorations and remove the Christmas Tree. In some communities, a massive bonfire is constructed from the material of all types of trees. A few families by celebrate by baking and eating what is called Oreikonigs’ Kuchen or Three Kings’ Cake. From 7th January, Christmas is over and the religious calendar moves on to Lent, Carnival time and Easter.