Thursday, January 01, 2015

A Sweep Is As Lucky, As Lucky Can Be

One afternoon in 1999 I found myself on a rooftop on Ulica Fabryczna in Warsaw nervously wondering if I should really follow my translator Robert, our photographer Andrew and the Chimney Sweep we were interviewing out onto the slanting terra cotta tiles.  Common sense prevailed and I stood on a rickety ladder with my head popping out of the trap door feeding Robert questions as he and the Sweep clambered around the chimney pots and Andrew snapped away.  The whole purpose of the exercise was an photo essay for the newspaper I worked for on the chimney sweeps who were still very actively employed in Warsaw.

My last question to the Sweep would strike most North Americans as odd but I had to ask:  May I touch your sleeve? The Sweep smiled and nodded.  I touched his sleeve, made a wish and if tradition was to be believed luck was now on my side and my wish would be fulfilled.

The idea that chimney sweeps are the agents of good fortune is an old believe in Poland, Slovenia, the Czech Republic and Croatia.  The sweeps still wear the traditional black coat with silvery buttons, black trousers, and top hat and the superstition holds that it is good luck to touch them, wiping a fingertip across their sooty sleeves, or, if only seeing them from a distance, to touch a button on your person and make a wish.  There is one suggestion that the ritual when you see a chimney sweep is to grab another person's button and wait until you see someone wearing glasses, than make a wish.  Sounds like a modernization and just a little too complicated .

For the past 15 years our little straw Sweep has been at the foot of our tree or perched on the buffet or
 mantel.  Every New Year's Eve we touch his sleeve and make a wish for good luck in the coming year.
In Germany and Austria meeting a chimney sweep on New Year's Day meant good luck for the year.  As an encounter could not be guaranteed it became a tradition to give family and friends cards figured with little sweeps and to attach miniatures to gifts of flowers or sweets at New Years as a symbol of good luck for the coming year.  These bringers of good fortune often distributed four leaf clovers and in some instances the deadly red and white Amanita muscaria mushroom.   Again this can be puzzling to a North American - sure the four-leaf clover we understand but a toxic mushroom????  In German the red and white spotted fungus is known as der glückspilz (lucky mushroom) and has long been deemed fortuitous in Central and Eastern Europe, where there are remnants of respect for its ancient use as a shamanic hallucinogen.  They have long been a symbol of Christmas and colourful blown-glass mushrooms are found adorning Christmas trees throughout Germany and Austria (hmm an idea for next year's ornament?)

Our little Austrian lead Sweep may have forgotten his four leaf clover but a little bird
has one to assist him in making the New Year one of good fortune and good luck.
And hidden down in the grass is another symbol: a tiny glückspilz (lucky mushroom).
In our household we have our straw Polish chimney sweep with his sooty black uniform and silver buttons to be touched in the first minutes of the New Year.  We also have a small painted Austrian sweep with a four-leaf clover, a tiny magic mushrooms hides in the grass and he wear a scarf of red dotted with white.  All the talismans needed for good luck in the coming year.

January 1 - 1600: Scotland begins its numbered year on January 1 instead of March 25.


yvette said...

Reading your magical tale will certainly bring me good luck... the lucky sleeves and silver buttons are also unkown to me ! Very best wishes for the four of you!

Ur-spo said...

alas we have no fireplace; no sweeps or luck for us.

Carry Scanlon said...

Will, I want to say this post is cute, but it's smarter than it is cute. I almost forgot about the fact that chimney sweeps are thought to be a bringer of good fortune and this post just reminded me. In fact, I can't even recall where I was first introduced to the idea but it is somewhere from my childhood.

Carry Scanlon @ Chim Chimney