Why is the German Chimney Sweep so Lucky?
You see him down the way, and your heart skips a beat with excitement… the man in black. He turns and gives you a smile, touching his top hat with a little salute, his gold buttons shining bright in the sunshine. You feel lucky, do you dare push it? Why not…. you approach him, this German Chimney Sweep, and ask if you can touch those buttons. He says yes. You do, and your finger comes away with just the slightest bit of soot
And then you head off to buy a Lotto Ticket, because YOU KNOW that luck is with you.
The German chimney sweep or Schornsteinfeger has been a good luck symbol since the late Middle Ages. People give each other little Chimney Sweet figurines or Marzipan figures. Chimney Sweeps turn up in children’s songs and stories, and make appearances at Weddings. But WHY? Why would a guy that climbs on roofs and spends the day getting dirty be so lucky? Is it because of their great balance? It turns out…a chimney sweep’s luck comes from fire prevention.
But, as always, there is a lot more to the story.
The History of the German Chimney Sweep
Before the 9th century family homes tended to be simple. One room with a space for a fire. Above the fire was the “Rauchfrangtrichter”… which is a fancy world for chimney funnel. Essentially, a hole over the fire to let smoke out. (In those days, homes got a little smokey). By the 10th century, a Schornstein, a more dedicated chimney, but basically a slot or tube to let fire go through, was added. These chimneys were usually made of wood and clay. It wasn’t until the 15th century that stone chimneys became more common.
Fire, the source of warmth, light, and a hot meal, also meant danger.
As the smoke and ash rose through the opening, and soot would stick to the chimney walls. This build up meant there was always a danger that it would catch fire, so the chimney needed to be cleaned regularly. Cleaning the chimney fell to the homeowner, and either they did it themselves, or hired someone. The work was hard, and really dirty… so it didn’t always get done. And this was a problem.
Remember, homes at that time were built primarily from wood. Even the Fachwerk houses consists of a wooden frame and in-between spaces get filled by a mixture of straw and clay. Once a fire started, it could spread through an entire town before it went out. Nightwatchmen wandered through towns and cities primarily to keep an eye out for fire and raise the alarm if needed. But prevention was more important than response.
The Schornsteinfeger or Chimney Sweep profession started in Italy worked its way north into Germany in the 15th century. As the job became more common in the 16th century, cities began passing ordinances regarding the cleaning of chimneys. Before long, the sweeps organized, and the first “Schornsteinfegerzunft” (Chimney Sweep Guild) was recorded in Berlin. The Chimney Sweeps were so important that Prussian King Wilhelm I issued an ordinance with regulations regarding the cleaning of chimneys which included setting up districts that were controlled by a specific Master Schornsteinfeger, instructions on how often chimneys would be swept, and assignment of liability in case of chimney fire. Many of these regulations stayed in place until recently. Today, there are still regulations making chimney sweeping compulsary.
A clean chimney is a safe chimney. Safety… the ability to cook and stay warm, without being in danger of your house burning around you was a good thing, a LUCKY thing. Much in the same way that having a pig meant you could survive the winter. A clean chimney helped insure survival.
Bild aus Seite 161 in “Die Gartenlaube”. Image from page 161 of journal Die Gartenlaube, 1895. Deutsch: Bildunterschrift: „Der schwarze Mann. Nach dem Gemälde von L. Blume-Siebert.“
English: caption: “Der schwarze Mann. Nach dem Gemälde von L. Blume-Siebert.”
The Chimney Sweep’s Clothing
In days past, the dark clothing of the chimney sweep made sense. Their job sends them crawling into dark and dirty spaces. But the dark clothing and soot on the face caused people to associate them with magical powers over spirits and demons. If someone could keep the homes and community safe from the catastrophe of fire… they must be magical! In years past, rumors swirled that the sweeps possessed magical powers over demons. (On the other hand, because of their access to private spaces, they were considered spies. They could see, and were expected to report irregularities when it came to reporting taxes).
And the Top Hat? According to legend… Frederick II of Prussia granted the privilege to Chimney Sweeps to wear the Top Hat because it was a special job, and they were considered “royal servants”. Today, the custom continues and many Schornteinfeger continue to wear the Zylinder… at least on formal occasions.
The Lucky German Chimney Sweep
The Chimney Sweep remains a Good Luck symbol in Germany, especially in the days around the New Year.
You don’t have to rub the earlobe of a chimney sweep to get the luck (although some people swear by it)… you can just spot one on the street. But shaking their hand, or clasping the shoulder of a sweep brings luck… as does rubbing the gold buttons or touching the top hat. If you are lucky, you will get a piece of soot to take along.
Or… you could just buy a little Schornsteinfeger figurine and enjoy that!
Today, there may be fewer chimneys to sweep, but the men in black are still out there checking heating systems and keeping their communities safe (they are considered a part of the Fire Brigade!) And they will make appearances at weddings for luck….
Hier bin ich! Schaut mich einmal an!
Ich bin der kleine schwarze Mann!
Seh’ ich auch nicht grad sauber aus,
so bring’ ich Euch doch Glück ins Haus.
Ich hört’, hier soll heut’ Hochzeit sein,
drum kam ich schnell zu Euch herein,
um Euch zu wünschen Glück und Segen
auf allen Euren Lebenswegen.
Nimm, liebe Braut, den Besen hier
als Hochzeitsgabe nun von mir
und halt damit stets rein das Haus,
das Schlechte kehr’ zur Tür hinaus.
Doch dreh’ den Besen niemals um,
denn das nimmt Dir Dein Mann sonst krumm!
Ein Besen – merke Dir’s genau –
ist keine Waffe für die Frau!
Dass Ihr Euch niemals streiten sollt,
das war’s, was ich Euch sagen wollt’.
Und nun will ich auch wieder gehn.
Viel Glück dann und “Auf Wiedersehn!”
Here I am! Look at me!
I’m the little black man!
Even if I don’t look clean,
I’ll bring luck to your house.
I heard the wedding is supposed to be here today,
so I quickly came in
to wish you luck and blessings
on all your life paths.
Now , dear bride, take this broom
from me as a wedding gift
and always keep the house clean with it,
sweep the bad out the door.
But never turn the broom,
otherwise your husband will take it out on you!
A broom – remember it carefully –
is not a weapon for women!
That you should never argue,
that’s what I wanted to tell you.
And now I want to go again.
Good luck then and “Goodbye!”
Find a little luck here…