Star singers also known as Epiphany singers, or Star boys' singing procession (England), are children and young people walking from house to house with a star on a rod and often wearing crowns and dressed in clothes to resemble the Three Magi (variously also known as Three Kings or Three Wise Men). The singing processions have their roots in an old medieval ecclesiastical play, centred on the Biblical Magi of the Christmas story in the Gospel of Matthew (Mt 2,1-28), appropriate to Epiphany. It is observed usually during the period between 27 December and 6 January (the feast of the Epiphany).
In Scandinavia and Central Europe a special set of songs, distinct from Christmas carols has developed in this context. In England, the liturgical drama developed from being performed by cathedral schoolboys in the 16th century to become a more secular mystery drama, containing also some ordinary Christmas songs and carols. Historically performed by boys and male adolescents only, it is nowadays performed by children and young people of both sexes in most regions where the tradition is alive.
At a synod in Konstanz in Germany at Christmas in 1417 the British clergies performed the Star boy drama for the rest of the participants at the meeting. They wore expensive costumes and had a large shining star. The performance was a huge success at the church conference and could have been one of the main reasons for growing popularity of the drama in post-medieval Europe.
The importance of the Twelfth Day and the feast of the Epiphany grew with the introduction of the Gregorian calendar as the day, according to the earlier Julian calendar, is also the Old Christmas Day.
After the Reformation in the 16th century, pupils of the cathedral schools in Protestant nations conducted these processions to raise funds to replace the church support that had disappeared. The custom passed further on to the general populace as a kind of narrative folk drama, but seems to have declined in its original form since the late 19th century.
Since then the singing procession has become common in many parts of Europe (both in Catholic and Protestant areas) and in Russia. In most countries it is no longer restricted to boys, but children or both sexes participate. In Germany, Austria and Belgium organisations centrally organise the processions, collecting money for charity or international aid projects, leading to a widespread support of the custom.
In Germany, the Czech Republic and Austria the Epiphany singing is performed at or close to Epiphany (6 January) and has developed into a nationwide custom, where the children of both sexes call on every door and are given sweets and money for charity projects - mostly in aid of poorer children in other countries.
A tradition in most of Central Europe involves writing a blessing above the main door of the home. For instance if the year is 2014, it would be "20 * C + M + B + 14". The initials refer to the Latin phrase "Christus mansionem benedicat" (= May Christ bless this house); folkloristically the letters are often interpreted as the names of the Three Wise Men (Caspar, Melchior, Balthasar). In Catholic parts of Germany and in Austria, this is done by the Sternsinger (literally "Star singers"). After having sung their songs, recited a poem, and collected donations for children in poorer parts of the world, they will chalk the blessing on the top of the door frame or place a sticker with the blessing.
Annually around 300 000 people are active in collecting donations in Germany.
In Austria the biggest carol singing campaign is organized by the "DKA" (Dreikönigsaktion), an aid foundation founded by the youth organization Katholische Jungschar. Annually about 85,000 children and 30,000 adults take part in the "Dreikönigsaktion".
The biggest carol singing campaign in Slovakia is Dobrá Novina (English: "Good News"). It is also one of the biggest charity campaigns by young people in the country. Dobrá Novina is organized by the youth organization eRko.
Main article: Chalking the door
The Star singers, aged about ten to fifteen, are dressed in long white shirts and pointed brown or white paper hats, in imitation of a well-known picture of the Biblical Magi as Babylonians Balthazar carries the star and Caspar and Melchior are armed with wooden swords. The other characters usually do not disguise themselves but also dress in long shirts, often in brown, green or grey colours and conical hats. Joseph has got a cylindrical paper hat and a wooden timber or broad axe. King Herod wears a crown and he and his soldiers carry wooden swords. In the crowd there may also be shepherds with long shirts and sticks and some angels with white shirts and wings.
The Star singers walk about from house to house "singing at the doors, with a star on a pole". The dramatic part is introduced by one of the Wise Men knocking on someone's door asking: "May the star come in?" If the offer is accepted, they are all invited inside. Then the whole procession will enter the home singing a special Christmas carol. Then the play begins.
In the performance, the Three Wise Men, Gaspar, Melchior and Balthazar, are first confronted by Joseph, who tries to protect the newborn baby Jesus (a doll) and his wife Mary from the intruders with a wooden axe. The three magi are however most welcome inside after saying that they have brought with them presents for the child. The Wise Men also have to mislead King Herod, who is also trying to find the new born 'prince' in the stable. Both Gaspar and Melchior fight the king and his men with swords, together with Joseph who uses his broad axe, while Mary nurses her son and Balthazar takes care of the shining star.
After the performance Judas comes to collect money or other gifts from the audience in a large bag. The boys and girls are usually treated to drinks and cakes afterwards. Then the Star singers leave the house for their next visit to somewhere in the neighbourhood, singing a song containing a farewell and many thanks for the received gifts.
The star itself is made anew each year, using transparent paper on a constructed frame built of wooden lists and with one to three candles placed inside. The star on the rod has to be movable and turned around all the time, so that the paper does not get overheated and does not go up in flame.
The Star boys' singing procession in England seems later to have been mixed together with several other kinds of carol singers at Christmas. They do not go from house to house, but visit two or three local pubs to receive free beer. Nowadays they are not carrying the shining star anymore, but just a quadrangular paraffin wax on a long stick or even a candle lamp with an ordinary handle. Whereas religious folk plays are the norm in the rest of Europe, the British folk drama is absolutely secular, even if they are mostly taking place on the Christian festival days.