German Boys' Clothes: Religious Costumes

Figure 1.--This image shows modern German boys participating in Sternsingen. On Epiphany day groups of children (in former times mostly altar boys, now girls, too) roam from house to house singing Sternenlieder (songs that describe how they were guided by the star of Bethlehem) bringing wishes to the house and its inhabitants. Images courtesy of the Frommenhausen internet site.

Germany has a wide range of destinctive religious traditions. Many date from the Medieval era. Some are little known outside of Germany. These traditions are primarily Catholic ones. The Protestant as part of the Reformaion abolished most of them and they removed pictures and cultural relics as well. They wanted to focus on the Bible as the center of parish life. The Chatolic Church abolished customs as well when they turned into uncontrolled events (like Palmeselumzüge or Boy bishops). Some of these traditions survived in a few towns. In recent years some of the lost traditions are being revived. And some of the Protestant sects have shown some interest in these historic traditions, once seen as essentially Catholic.

Sternsingen (January 6)

Sternsingen is part of the German Christams celebration. On Epiphany day (January 6 each year or the day before, nowadays much earlier) groups of children (in former times mostly altar boys, now girls, too) roam from house to house singing Sternenlieder (songs that describe how they were guided by the star of Bethlehem) bringing wishes to the house and its inhabitants, too. As a return they get some sweets and money, which is nowadays usually donated to the poor, or some Third World country project. In Austria it was performed by men, who rode on horseback through the towns and villages. This appears to be a uniquely German custom. I don't think it custom exists in other countries. There are, however similar traditions in Belgium and the Netherlands, especially in Flanders. The children in 2003 write on the door with chalk "20+C+M+B+03" This means the names of the Wisemen: Caspar, Melchior (the black king appeared in art since the 12th century, in the Middle ages as youth, man, old person or from other continents as well), and Balthasar. But it really means Christus mansionem benedicat (Christ bless this house).

Ratschenbuben (March/April)

The Ratschenbuben is a primarily German tradition dating from the 12th century. It was also observed in Austria and in German communities in Sitzerland. One HBC reader tells us that "Ratschenbuben" is an Autrian word meaning "rattle playing boys", a word that is unknown in Germany. A German reader, however, reports that "The word "Ratsche" and the custom, to play these instruments during "Karwoche" is not limited to Austria, but also exists in Germany and I think Swizerland, as well." The traditions may vary from region to region and from parish to parish, and is held in Catholic places. At first only boys played the "Ratsche" but nowadays girls also join in. It's the same thing as with the altar boys which are now joined by h girls. Note the wheelbarrow-like carts, many boys seemed to have had these. An Austrian source tells HBC that there are Schubkarren-, Walzen-, Kasten-, Hammer- und Flügelratschen (wheelbarrow, roller, box, hammer and winglike Ratschen) However, I don't know how these different "Ratschen" might have looked, but I think the wheelbarrow like carts at are big "Ratschen". An Austrian reader reports seeing the wing like Ratschen once or twice. Also note the man in the cone hat.

Palm Sunday (March/April)

Another custom was held on Palm Sunday. A donkey was led by the people in a procession to church. On it rode at first a clergy man, but since these animals aren’t very tame, it was replaced by a wooden sculpture showing the donkey and Jesus. It was drawn by altar boys that had to be very obeying. It is also said that riding on the donkey will be good for their growth. In some regions the ears could be taken apart and were used as money collector. In other sculptures you could open its stomach and fill it either with bread and goodies, which fall apart during procession. It was first mentioned in 970 in Augsburg and was strongly held during the Middle Ages and Baroque era. The person who made the sculpture hoped that his sins would be forgiven. It was common especially in the South of Germany but also in Netherlands and Belgium and other countries (e.g. Austria, Switzerland, and perhaps elsewhere in Europe). The custom in the 17th century waslargely abolished because it had become out of bounds. Most of the Palmesels were slaughtered by Eselmetzger, that hid up their heads. Fortunately some of them survived and are mostly in Museums now, but there is a place in Bavaria where they still use a living donkey and two in Austria (Thaur near Innsbruck and Puch near Hallein) were they still use a wooden Palmesel in procession. One German reader complains, "Just like Christmas, items for Osterhase appear far too earliy into the shops. ??? brings sweets and eggs on Easter, too. But the cock is also thought to bring them."

St. Martin's Day (November 11)

Rummelpots are also played on the North Sea coast, Styria and Kärnten on St Martins Day, November 11 and during New years eve (just like in the Netherlands). It is a pot with a pig bladder in which a stick is put and by turning it around sound is produced). Leonhardiritte are held on 6th November his patronate day.

Boy Bishops (December)

The Midieval tradition of Boy Bishops was a common custom throughout Germany and has been revoved in a few churches in recent years. We do not have a separate page on Germany yet, but there is information on Germany in the main Boy Bishop page.

Christmas (December 25)

No holiday is more dear to the Germans than Christmas. Germany has many Christmas traditions, bith Protestant and Catholic. Many of the German Christmas traditions have become part of the standard English and American Christmas celebration. Prince Albert, Queen's Victoria's German husband, played an important role in bringing German traditions to England. Millions of German immigrants helped bring German traditions to America. As in many other European countries, on the eve of December 6th children place a shoe or boot by the fireplace. During the night, St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children, hops from house to house carrying a book of sins in which all of the misdeeds of the children are written. If they have been good, he fills the shoe or boot with delicious holiday edibles. If they have not been good, their shoe is filled with twigs. December 21, supposedly the shortest day (longest night) of the year, is dubbed St. Thomas Day. In parts of the Sauerland, whoever wakes up late or arrives late to work on that day is issued the title "Thomas Donkey." They are given a cardboard donkey and are the subject of numerous jokes throughout the day. But this gentle abuse ends deliciously with round, iced currant buns called "Thomasplitzchen." This is all preliminary to the excitement of Christmas Eve. Prior to the evening feast, is the presentation of the tree. The Christmas tree, as we know it, originated in Germany. It has a mysterious magic for the young because they are not allowed to see it until Christmas Eve. A German reader writes, "On Heiligabend the presents aren't brought by Father Christmas like in UK (or Santa Claus in US) but by the Christkind (Christchild). It is said we are giving presents to each other because we are happy that Jesus was given as a present to the world. On December 6 Sankt Nikolaus brings presents himself (usually sweets or Wheinachstmänner) It is a real shame they start putting these things into the shops far to early (in November) so when they would be needed there are only few left. In Spain, for example, the presents are brought by The Magis, not the Christkind."

Leonardiritt in Pettenbach (various months)

Leonardiritt in Pettenbach Ritte are mainly held in Austria and Bavaria on the day of the saint. On that day people make a procession around fields and to churches, that bear his name, and bless horses He is the patron of horses and cattle and is honored on his day. As he is patron of horses, horseshoes are his symbol and are sold on that day. A German reader reports, "I'd like to add to the altar boy section, that on a photo in a book, that was taken November 6, 1977, the altar boys are wearing a pageboy costume (figure 1). The costume is red with yellow detailing and buttons. They wear a red cap with a plume and white gloves. Furthermore red trousers and laced shoes. Finally a large ruffled white collar. They wear this special uniform because, it's Leonhardiritt at Pettenbach in Austria. I'm not sure if this uniform is still worn

Other Ceremonies

A German reader reports, "There were some other customs, too, that should illustrate the events of the church year to the church goers: At Ascension Engelstanz or Engelsauffahren is one of them: wooden sculptures (representing Jesus and Angels with candles) were drawn to the ceiling of the church. Or at Pentecost, a dove (wooden or living) was drawn in the church with burning straw falling down (representing the Holy Ghost and fire tongues)." We also note a lot of local ceremobies and festivals. Every German town and village have their own destinctive festivals and traditions. Son\me are associated with major holidays. Others are entirely local. There are normally important religious elements to hese celebrations. We note many photographs of processions and festivals that we can not identify. Hopefully our German readers willl be abkle to provide some insights.


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Created: November 11, 2003
Last updated: 12:16 AM 6/15/2009