Epiphany and the Sternsinger

Christmas Traditions: Star Singers, January 6 and C+M+B

In Austria and parts of Germany and Switzerland, Christmas does not officially end until January 6. That date commemorates the religious feast day known as Epiphany or das Dreikönigsfest (“three kings festival”) in German. Today in many parts of German-speaking Europe the day is known for the fundraising Christmas custom of “Star Singers.”

Sternsinger

A Sternsinger group in Austria. PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

January 6 (Epiphany) is a legal holiday in Austria, in three states of Germany, and in three Swiss cantons, as well as in parts of the canton of Graubünden (Grisons). In Spain and many parts of Latin America, January 6 is the most important day for exchanging Christmas gifts. Children eagerly await the day, when they awake to find gifts left by the Three Wise Men (or Three Kings, Los Tres Reyes Magos). For children in many Spanish-speaking lands, this day is more important than Christmas Day itself, when they might receive only a token gift or two. January 6 in Spain roughly corresponds to December 6 in Austria and Germany, when Nikolaus leaves gifts for children there.

C+M+B
In Austria and in Catholic regions of Germany and Switzerland, Epiphany is also the date when people (including Sternsinger) finish carrying out the traditional “C+M+B” house-blessing ceremony, with an inscription on or above the door. The inscription shown below (for 2008 in Bavaria) is in the standard format used in Germany, although there are regional variations.

C+M+B

A typical “C+M+B blessing” inscription over a house entry door in Bavaria.
PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

Traditionally, the three letters in the inscription stand for the names of the three Wise Men (Magi): Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar (German spelling). Another possible explanation is that “C+M+B” stands for the Latin phrase: Christus mansionem benedicat, which translates into “Christ bless this house.” The inscription is usually made with chalk that has has been blessed by a local Catholic priest.

The inscription format for 2013 would be: 20*C+M+B+13, in which the star (*) represents the star of Bethlehem and the three crosses (+) represent the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The names of the Magi (Wise Men, die Weisen) from the East are never mentioned in the Bible, but come from sixth century Roman Church (Latin) tradition. The number three is taken from the gifts mentioned: gold, frankincense and myrrh (Gold, Weihrauch, Myrrhe); the Bible never really mentions how many Magi came to Bethlehem.

Sternsinger
Although the Sternsinger custom dates back to the 16th century, in modern times (since 1959) the custom in German-speaking Europe has become a charitable, fundraising event. Officially known as Aktion Dreikönigssingen (“Operation Three Kings Singing”) in Germany, the annual event is sponsored by the Catholic church and Catholic youth organizations. Most of the participants are young people (boys and girls) who dress in costumes resembling what the Magi supposedly wore when they visited the baby Jesus. With the leader carrying a star, the costumed Star Singers walk from house to house and sing special traditional Star Singer carols. At each stop they also solicit donations for various childrens’ charities in Germany and abroad, as well as programs to end hunger in parts of the world. In Catholic regions, especially in rural areas or in smaller towns, the Star Singers may also inscribe the C+M+B house-blessing inscriptions mentioned above.

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Meet the Chancellor
One indicator of the importance of the Sternsinger custom in Germany is the fact that the German chancellor and the Bundestag (German parliament) receive an annual public visit from the Star Singers in January. In 2013 Chancellor Angela Merkel met with Star Singers from all over Germany in a televised event on Friday, January 4. (See photo.) In the last few years the Sternsinger program in Germany alone has raised over 47 million euros annually.

Angela Merkel and Sternsinger

Sternsinger from Würzburg, Germany pose with the German chancellor in Berlin on January 4, 2013. PHOTO: BR Fernsehen

The Star Singer tradition also exists in some other European countries and elsewhere in the world, but the custom seems to be most vigorous in the German-speaking countries. In England the star singers are known as “Star Boys Singers,” but they do not go from house to house.

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