In Germany, especially around Christmas and the New Year you see them everywhere… Toadstool ornaments, Chimney Sweet figures, Marzipan Piggies with coins or 4 Leaf Clover in their mouths. These German good luck symbols didn’t just come out of nowhere… they all have history and legend to explain why they are lucky. Some luck charms go back to Pagan times, others just to the Middle Ages, but all make a bit of sense in their context.
German Good Luck Symbols
How many of these are you familiar with?
Lucky Pig/ Glückschwein
There is a German expression…”Schwein gehabt” that means “got lucky”. (In a sentence it’s used like this “Er hat Schwein gehabt”/ “He got lucky!”). This piggy expression goes back to the Middle Ages, when owning a pig meant that you would survive the Winter without starving. Pigs were a sign of wealth and prosperity. Why a pig, and not a cow? My bet is that you could eat the pig, while a cow or horse would be more valuable alive for milk or as a work animal. (Plus, you could keep the pig inside the house and it wouldn’t take up as much space). Today, lucky pigs, especially Marzipan Pigs are given to friends as gifts between Christmas and New Year. And most kids get Piggy Banks from the Sparkasse to encourage saving. (Because, the only thing luckier than a pig, is a pig full of money).
In Germany you will see red capped Toadstools on Christmas Trees or on Good Luck wishes… but how is the poisonous Amanita muscaria mushroom a symbol of LUCK? It goes back to the German name, Fliegenpilze (fly mushroom). In traditional fairy tale settings, Fliegenpilze have ugly toads sitting on them catching flies. These bright mushrooms represent beauty in the forest, and are “lucky” to find. Why lucky? In farm houses, pieces of the red and white mushroom would be put into a bowl of milk or water… flies would land on it, become intoxicated, and die. (And if you’ve ever been on a farm in Germany, you know what a pest flies can be). But whatever you do, don’t eat them, their poison is toxic! Just enjoy them for their beauty.
Horse shoes / Hufeisen
A few different legends attribute Horse shoes with luck. The most practical? Horses are valuable working farm animals, and their shoes protect them. But the protection is not just from the hard ground. Also legend says that mischievous Fairies can not touch iron… so the iron shoes protect the horses, and protect your house from malicious Pixies if you have a horse shoe nailed above the door. Don’t believe in Fairy mischief? How about the Devil? When Saint Dunstan was a blacksmith monk, the Devil insisted he shoe his horse. Dunstan tricked him and nailed the horse shoes to the Devil’s feet, causing him unbelievable agony. The Devil begged Dunstan to remove the shoes, which he did, after the Devil promised to stay away from homes with a horse shoe above the door.
Naturally, there is some debate about whether the horse shoe should be hung with points up, to hold in the luck, or with points down, in order to shower luck on anyone who walks beneath it. The most luck comes from a well secured Hufeisen…because having it crash down on your head would be wildly UNLUCKY.
Lucky Cent/ Glücks Pfennig (or Glücks Cent)
Speaking of nailing things to your home. A lucky penny or Glücks Pfennig nailed to the front door is said to chase away witches. Finding a shiny bright or very old and dark penny is best for this. And keeping a lucky penny in your pocket is just the thing to ward off dark magic.
Four Leaf Clover / Glücksklee
One of the common German Good Luck symbols is a Four Leaf Clover. In the wild, only one in every 10,000 Trifolium repens or Three-Leaf Clovers will have a Fourth Leaf, and it’s the genetic rarity that makes it lucky. Legend says that Eve took one with her as a memory of better times when she and Adam were driven out of Paradise. Today, growers are able to reproduce clover with 4 leaves to sell as good luck charms, and pots of clover are sold to people wanting to share in the luck. But be aware! Finding the the four leafed clover in the wild brings the most luck, and even grants a wish. Still, you will often find 4 leaf clovers on combined with other lucky symbols, like in the mouth of a Marzipan pig… or maybe it’s the landing place of a Ladybug.
Ladybug / Marienkäfer
Marienkäfer… Mary Bugs, what Americans call ladybugs, are named for the Virgin Mary. Legend says that Mary sent these helpful red beetles with black spots to earth to help farmers because they ate the pesky aphids off of the crops. Swarms of Lady Bugs meant a fruitful harvest. If one lands on you, then you are lucky because the Marienkäfer mistook you for a tree…. and it’s even luckier when it has 7 spots!
Knocking Wood / Holz Klopfen
Knocking wood is more an action than a symbol, and is so incredibly common in Germany, people may not even realize what they are doing. In practical terms, knocking wood goes back to early sailors or miners. When knocking on wood, the ship’s mast or the mine’s support beams, a person could hear if the wood is sound and safe. A dull sound means the wood is wet or brittle… bad if you want the sail to stand firm. A clear sound means the mine won’t collapse.
But going further back, during Pagan times, people believed that spirits like fairies lived inside trees. By touching or knocking on the tree, you could distract the being, so it couldn’t hear you… or you could knock on the tree to ask for a favor. Today, a knock on the table when arriving or leaving traces back to old superstition. Traditional Stammtisch tables were made of oak, and it is believed that the Devil himself can’t touch oak. By knocking, you reassure your drinking buddies that you are who you say you are, and not the devil in disguise.
Chimney Sweep / Schornsteinfeger
Of all professions, how did the Chimney Sweep or Schornsteinfeger, become the “Lucky” one? The simple answer… FIRE. During the Middle Ages, all cooking and heating was done over flame, and the smoke would rise up the chimney leaving soot behind. Over time, this soot would get thicker. If not cleaned regularly, the soot could clog the flue, and the house would catch fire. In a world of wooden buildings, thatched roof, and close housing (and no bright red fire engines) house fires were devastating. A clean chimney meant safety, and a good Chimney Sweep was a lucky thing to have. Because most Chimney Sweeps traditionally collected the fees for their services at the New Year, they were the first “guests” in the house, and greeting them brought luck.
Traditional Schornsteinfeger wear black clothes with silver buttons. Touching one of the buttons brings luck… and turning the button brings extra luck (although, some people get a little TOO enthusiastic, which is why so many Chimney sweeps are missing buttons)
Do you believe in Good Luck Charms?
In my eyes… it couldn’t hurt to have a Glückspilz on the Christmas tree… or a Glückschwein in my Bunter Teller. And I always feel happy when I see a Chimney Sweep. Piggy Banks, lucky pennies, lady bugs…. all of these German good luck symbols are welcome in my home, because the way I see it, after the train wreck of 2020, we need all the luck we can get!