Chim chiminey Chim chiminey Chim chim cher-ee, a sweep is as lucky as lucky can be, Bert the chimney sweep sang as he and his fellow sweeps danced across London roof tops in Mary Poppins. Not much dancing over roof tops happens in Germany, but from medieval times a Schornsteinfeger or a Schlotfeger, literally "stone chimney brush", "funnel brush" or "smokestack brush", but actually a Chimney Sweep, has been believed to be a lucky charm.
Just starting the day by seeing one of Germany's 25,000 chimney sweeps in the age old working outfit, a black suit with double breasted gold buttoned jacket, white kerchief and black top hat, or better still being able to touch one of those buttons, is believed to guarantee good fortune.
On New Years Day it is especially symbolic as that should bring good luck for the entire year, while of course seeing one on a wedding day is a traditional good luck omen in many countries, not only Germany.
Not surprisingly a typical gift to celebrate the New Year, or Sylvester as it is called in Germany, hopefully to bring "good luck" throughout the year, is a small black clad chimney sweep made from pipe cleaners, dried fruit, silver foil covered chocolate, or colored marzipan. Often clutching a four leaf clover together with the toxic but pretty 'gluckpilz', the "lucky" red mushroom with white spots, and accompanied by flowers, chocolates, sparkling wine or a pot filled with an 'alive and growing' four leaf clover plant.
The arrival of winter in Germany brings with it the aroma of wood smoke drifting through the air, from the welcoming and warming open fires and wood burning heat storing stoves its countrymen are so fond of, and which, thanks to the chimney sweeps, will burn safely and uneventfully through the cold weather months. Because by law each year every one of those fires, and all types of central heating systems, must be inspected by a Schornsteinfeger to make sure they are clean and functioning efficiently.
However it is not possible to just pick up the phone book and choose a chimney sweep, as the German law which decrees all chimneys and heating systems must be checked annually also insists that the one used is allocated to you because you happen to live in his district. Free choice is not an option.
Not only that if you don't want him to enter your home he is entitled to do so without your permission if necessary, with the help of the police and a locksmith.
A hangover from Germany's pre-WWII days when the mandatory yearly inspection was introduced, the regime of the time thought it quite useful to have people who could freely enter homes and perhaps see if anything untoward was happening there.
As did the East German government during the days of the Berlin Wall.
There are 7,888 'chimney sweep' regions in Germany and each is covered by a qualified chimney sweep, together with trainees who also wear the traditional black suit outfit but with a skull cap not a 'masters' top hat.
The uniform might be from another age however the profession has become more technical, not limited to cleaning chimneys but inspecting all stages of chimney construction in new buildings, and for environmental and safety reasons checking for carbon monoxide leaks in gas heating systems, making Germany a country that has fewer problems with that gas than any other.
Earning a license takes four years although it doesn't stop there, because the newly qualified Schornsteinfeger can exchange his skull cap for a top hat but must join a waiting list to eventually have his own district, or Kehrbezirk as it is called. However as a 12 to 15 year stay on the list is not unusual, he, and there are some 'she's' but very few, will continue working as an assistant.
In the past only German nationals could become chimney sweeps, and unlike in many other countries children were never used to climb the chimneys, but in theory there is now a law in place which says anyone can learn the trade, nevertheless generally that is not the way it works.
As a job for life and a closed society, places are handed down from generation to generation with some families going back to the 18th century this, together with a 'chimney sweep monopoly', means new openings are limited and protected.
A German chimney sweep is 'lucky' in many ways.
Chimneys were brought to Germany by the Romans who appreciated being warm on cold nights, and had developed a technique to clear the smoke produced by their fires so it was possible to enjoy the warmth without the smog.
For the Germans however things developed more slowly. Castles and monasteries were their first tall stone buildings and in the beginning fires were placed in the center of the rooms, only later being moved to a corner of two outside walls to be built around a chimney, and it was this that in the 16th century brought about the emergence of chimney sweeping as an essential service.
Open fireplaces created a lot of smoke, potentially fire hazardous waste, dirt and dead birds, soot and creosote coated the chimney, and after a visit from a chimney sweep bringing fresh smoke free air back into the home and clearing away the debris, people were said to have 'good luck' for the next year because their houses would not burn down.
In fact since pagan times fire and firesides have been linked with good fortune and well being, and perhaps it is also because of this connection that in so many countries, including Germany, a chimney sweep is considered a symbol of good luck, wealth and happiness, and somehow the day is brighter if it begins with seeing a Schornsteinfeger on his way, wire brush hanging from a loop on his shoulder, ladder at hand.
Chim chiminey Chim chiminey Chim chim cher-oo
Good luck will rub off when I shakes 'ands wiv you,
Or blow me a kiss and that's lucky too.
For topics in the news And you can follow German Culture on Facebook
The Unforgettable and Enchanting Mary Poppins. A two disc 45th Anniversary Special Edition DVD filled with special features.....and of course Bert the Lucky Chimney Sweep. A joy for young, and the not so young.
The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley: Tom is a little chimney-sweep ill-treated by his master, who, having just seen in a mirror how dirty he is, jumps into a clear cool stream to clean himself. ‘Magically’ he is turned into a tiny water baby by the fairies, and enters a strange enchanting underwater world where he learns many important lessons on his travels. A children's classic and a delight to read.
Chimney sweeps at a football match, photographer Martin Schuster for SV Warnemuende Football, 1850’s Chimney sweep, an anonymous photograph, Dresdner Plum Chimney Sweep, photographer acf, all courtesy de.Wikipedia