Lucky Chimney Sweeps, Germany's Schornsteinfeger

Lucky Chimney Sweeps, Germany's Schornsteinfeger
Chim chiminey Chim chiminey Chim chim cher-ee, a sweep is as lucky as lucky can be, Bert the chimney sweep sang as he danced through London's streets in the first Mary Poppins movie many years ago.

Not much dancing these days over rooftops or down streets by Chimney Sweeps at least, neither in Germany nor non-Mary Poppins London. But a "Schornsteinfeger", "Kaminkehrer" or "Schlotfeger", depending on the region, has been thought of as a lucky charm from medieval times.

Beginning the day by seeing one of Germany's 8,000 "Master Chimney Sweeps" in the age old working outfit, black suit with double breasted gold buttoned jacket, white kerchief, black top hat, or even better being able to touch one of those buttons, is believed to guarantee good fortune.

Especially symbolic on New Year's Day as they "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 known 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, "Gl?ckspilz", 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. Coming from the welcoming and warming open fires, and wood burning heat storing stoves, which its countrymen are so fond of, and that, thanks to the chimney sweeps, will burn safely and uneventfully through the cold weather months.

By law every year each one of those fires, and all types of central heating systems, must be inspected by a Schornsteinfeger to ensure they are clean and functioning efficiently.

Although laws are changing it is still not possible to just pick up the phone book and choose a chimney sweep.

German law decreed all chimneys and heating systems must have an annual check, and also insisted the chimney sweep used was allocated to you, and simply because you happened to live in his district.

Free choice was not an option, but a change in policy means rules are relaxing, although slowly.

If you don't want a sweep to enter your home he is entitled to do so without your permission; with help from the police and a locksmith.

This is a hangover from Germany's pre-WWII days when the mandatory yearly inspection was introduced. The regime of the time found it quite useful to have people who were able to freely enter homes, and perhaps see if anything untoward was happening in them.

As did the East German government during the days of the Berlin Wall.

Each of the 7,888 "Chimney Sweep" regions in Germany is covered by a qualified chimney sweep, and trainees who wear the traditional black suit outfit but with a skull cap, not the "Master's" top hat.

The uniform might be from another age but the profession has become more technical, no longer limited to cleaning chimneys but also inspecting all stages of chimney construction in new buildings.

And for environmental and safety reasons checking for carbon monoxide leaks in gas heating systems, which has made 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 Kaminkehrer can exchange his skull cap for a top hat but must join a waiting list to have his own district eventually, or Kehrbezirk as it is called. A 12 to 15 year stay on the list is not unusual so he, there are some "she's" but not many, will often continue working as an assistant.

In the past only German nationals could become chimney sweeps, but in theory a law is now in place that says anyone can learn the trade, although that is still not the way it works usually.

A job for life, with a closed society, positions handed down from generation to generation with some families going back to the 18th century, and a "chimney sweep monopoly", means new openings are limited and protected.

A German chimney sweep is "lucky" in many ways.

It was the Romans who brought Chimneys to Germany. They enjoyed being warm on cold nights, and had developed a technique to clear the smoke produced by fires so it was possible to enjoy the warmth without the smog.

For the Germans 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. It was this that in the 16th century brought about the emergence of chimney sweeping as an essential service.

Although unlike in many other countries children were not used to climb the chimneys.

Open fireplaces created a lot of smoke, potentially fire hazardous waste. Dirt, dead birds, soot and creosote coated the chimney, and after a visit from a chimney sweep had brought fresh smoke free air back into the home, and cleared away debris, it was said people would have "Good Luck" for the next year because their houses wouldn't burn down.

Before this not only homes but entire villages had been laid to waste because of blocked or dirty chimneys.

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.

Somehow the day is brighter if it begins by seeing one 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.

Photo credits: Gluecksbringer Max Uwe Ringsdorf via Koelner Stadt-Anzeiger - Lucky Chimney Sweep at a Wedding by geile-hochzeit - 1850?s Chimney sweep, an anonymous photograph, Chimney Sweep, photographer acf, both courtesy de.Wikipedia

You Should Also Read:
German New Year
Germany's Garden Gnomes
Germany's Dried Fruit People, Zwetschgenmaennla, including Chimney Sweeps

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