Among all that can be seen on Berlin's streets at this time of year - from empty firework wrappers to discarded bottles and snacks - groups of singers dressed as wise men are becoming increasingly common.
They are star singers, or epiphany singers, who collect money for the poor in a tradition better known in predominantly Catholic southern Germany around this time of year. The youths forms groups of at least four singers, three dressed as the Three Kings or Three Wise Men, and one carrying a star.
On Tuesday Chancellor Angela Merkel was regaled by 108 singers in the Chancellery. Wherever they go, the singers sing a special set of traditional songs that have evolved in Eastern Europe and Scandinavia.
The performances are becoming more and more popular in Berlin, largely a Prussian and Protestant city. Many of Berlin's 100 Catholic congregations, as well as some Protestant congregations, are now involved in such events.
The tradition is rooted in a medieval ecclesiastical play that tells the story of the kings in the Christmas story, in the Gospel of Matthew.
Star singers have performed since the early Middle Ages, mainly in the countries of Central and Northern Europe. Since the mid-twentieth century, groups of star singers are often part of campaigns centrally organized to collect donations for specific development projects.
Each year, the star singer tours begin with a church service to mark the sending of the missionaries, and they end with prayer meetings, in which the children and adolescents talk about their human encounters.
Such performances require a lot of preparation.
Last weekend, any visitor to the St. Hildegard Catholic parish house in Berlin's Frohnau neighborhood would have been met with signs of organized chaos.
To transform himself into King Balthazar, 12-year-old Tobias pulled on an ocher-colored, flowing robe over his head, put on a gold crown and wrapped a leopard-print scarf around his neck. Elisabeth, 14, his fellow singer, wore a blue poncho over her crimson dress, as Caspar from Africa, while star-bearer Amelie, 13, held up her eight-pointed star.
Ten other children and teenagers scurried back and forth between clothing racks and props as a man called, "We're still missing incense seeds. Which camel left them in the car?" Camel is the term used to describe adults who accompany the star singers on their missions.
There are also preparatory meetings. "It's important for them to know what they're doing," says Adelgund Lissy, 71, who has worked as a volunteer for the campaign for the last 33 years. The children learn about living conditions in poorer countries and study the religious symbolism surrounding the three kings.
The group from Berlin's Frohnau neighborhood will visit up to 300 families, single people, retirement homes, daycare centers, hospital wards and shops. One of the groups also visited a Berlin home for refugees where the singers made golden crowns out of cardboard and played with asylum-seeker children.
Their efforts are rewarded – in many ways. A group of Catholic star singers from the St. Ludwig parish in the Charlottenburg neighborhood was greeted with cookies and hot chocolate in the district town hall and wrote the traditional blessing above the town hall door as a thank you.
At the beginning of 2015, the groups collected about €28,000 ($30,300) in donations for children in the Philippines. "It's a tremendous effort during the Christmas holidays," said Silke Telschow-Malz of the team of adult chaperones. "But the star singers also get a lot out of it, and they're really keen to come back the following year, after finding out how much joy they can give on behalf of the star."
Every year, the German Catholic missionary agency for children, identifies the aid projects for which the groups will collect donations. In 2016, the campaign will support efforts for children in Bolivia. Their motto is: "Bring a blessing and be a blessing. Respect for you, for me and for others – in Bolivia and worldwide."
But collecting donations isn't their only purpose. "We also brought food to homeless people in the subway, where we wrote the blessing on the wall," said one girl.
Philipp, aged 14, described the singers as "ambassadors of sorts. We bring people together, and we are ambassadors of joy."
This article originally appeared in Tagesspiegel. To contact the author: [email protected]