After the presents have been opened and the New Year has gotten underway, German children dress up as the three kings and go door-to-door singing songs of faith to raise money for kids in less prosperous countries.
Freshly crowned peace prize winners
Residents of the city of Lindau had never seen anything like it before. Thirteen hundred little kings and queens marched through the narrow streets of the southern German town accompanied by two live camels and horses as they recreated the visit of the three kings to baby Jesus in Bethlehem. Four ships then carried the children out to the middle of Lake Constance’s azure waters, where they launched the 46th annual event of the Sternsinger, or "star singers."
On Friday, the traditional event will be carried out nationwide. Jan. 2 marks the day every year in Germany when a half a million Sternsinger roam the country’s streets for a good cause. In small groups of three or four, children go from house to house singing songs and gathering donations -- an engagement that has brought them considerable recognition, including this year’s prestigious Westphalian Peace Prize.
The children are meant to portray Casper, Melchior and Balthazar, the three kings who walked to Bethlehem 2,000 years ago to pay homage to baby Jesus. The donations gathered by the children finance projects of the Kindermissionswerk, a Catholic children’s charity, and the Association of Catholic Youth Aid Projects for young people throughout the world.
A centuries-old tradition
The Sternsinger custom began in Germany during the 16th century, but back then children collected donations for themselves. During the Christmas holidays, they went from house to house singing songs and collecting money that they used to pay for their schooling. Today, in more prosperous times, the children pass the donations on to the needy.
After World War II, the tradition took on a new form and began in earnest as an organized event. Since then the Sternsinger have gathered a total of close to €250 million donations for the Kindermissionswerk, supporting more than 25,000 charity projects. Last year alone, they collected close to €33 million which went to some 3,000 projects around the world, including a community health center in the Philippines and a kindergarten for traumatized children in the Palestinian cities of Ramallah and Jerusalem. Each year the Sternsinger select a different developing nation as their focus for donations and projects, and this year’s beneficiary is Rwanda.
In addition, the organization donated the €50,000 it received for the peace prize in 2003 to the youth victims of the Iran earthquake.
Each time the Sternsinger pass a house, they leave their mark: The children always write the letters "C M B" as well as the year in chalk on the doors of homes where they receive donations. To this day, even theologians dispute the letters’ meaning. Some believe it means "Christus Mansionem Benedicat," or "Jesus blesses this house." Others believe it’s just the initials of the three kings: Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar.