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Think back to the last time you attended a wedding. Chances are, you’ll have put on your fanciest outfit as a mark of respect to the bride and groom on their special day. But if the wedding took place in Europe, you might have noticed that one member of the wedding party looked somewhat grubby, with soot on their face and grime under their fingernails. Dressed all in black, carrying a large brush, and wearing a top hat and tails, the chimney sweep at first seems an unlikely wedding guest. But in fact, there’s a good reason why you’d want them there.
The Legend of King George
Understanding why some Europeans invite chimney sweeps to their weddings goes back to England's King George II (or his successor King George III, depending on the source; they reigned from the mid-1700s to 1820). Either way, the story is mostly the same: The King was traveling in his carriage when something — perhaps a dog — caused the Royal horse to bolt. A nearby chimney sweep acted quickly to grab the reins and calm the horse, averting tragedy.
As the tale goes, the King wasn’t able to thank the chimney sweep personally, so instead he issued a decree that all sweeps should be considered lucky from then on. Some accounts also say a chimney sweep was present at the wedding of King George’s daughter. There’s no proof that either event actually happened, but that hasn’t deterred chimney sweeps, not just in the United Kingdom but across Europe, from sharing the anecdote ever since.
Love and Good Fortune
According to another popular British legend, a chimney sweep was working on a roof when he suddenly fell. Luckily, a gutter broke his fall, and a young woman glanced out of the window to see the poor fellow dangling in front of her. She reached out and pulled him to safety. They fell in love and were later married — so perhaps it shouldn't come as a surprise that chimney sweeps have been welcome at weddings ever since.
Traditionally in Britain, the groom shakes the sweep’s hand and the bride receives a sooty kiss on the cheek. Popular in the post-war years, it’s seen something of a resurgence in the 21st century. On the morning of his wedding to Princess Elizabeth in 1947, Prince Philip popped out of Kensington Palace to shake the hand of a chimney sweep that “just so happened” to be passing. The Royal couple have now been married for over 72 years, so perhaps there is something in it after all.
While no weddings were involved, the most well-known chimney sweep in modern pop culture is certainly Bert, the British bloke played by Dick Van Dyke in Disney’s 1964 classic Mary Poppins. Recall key lines in the song “Chim Chim Cher-ee”: “A sweep is as lucky/As lucky can be . . . Good luck will rub off when I shake 'ands with you."
A Tradition Throughout Europe
Across northern and eastern Europe, the chimney sweep profession is also associated with good fortune in popular folklore. In Croatia, Poland, Romania, Slovenia, Czechia, Hungary, and Austria, encountering a sweep is lucky, particularly if you are able to rub one of the buttons on his jacket. (Perhaps proving that people will believe anything, a fake chimney sweep used to do a roaring trade selling lottery tickets in Geneva, as his customers thought they’d be more likely to win.)
The Baltic States like to commemorate their sweeps in bronze. In Riga, the Latvian capital, you’ll find a statue of a chimney sweep on the corner of Mātīsa and Mūrnieku streets; Tallinn, capital of neighbouring Estonia, has one too. In Lithuania, look up on the roof of a building in the city of Klaipėda and there’s another.
The Italian town of Santa Maria Maggiore goes one better. This place, located in the Vigezzo Valley in Piedmont region, has hosted a Chimney Sweep Festival every autumn for almost four decades. Spazzacamini, as they’re called in those parts, descend from all over Europe to parade through the streets; if you miss it, there’s also a museum dedicated to their craft.
But nowhere in Europe reveres the humble chimney sweep quite like Germany, where they’re known as Schornsteinfeger. If a Schornsteinfeger attends a German wedding, he won’t always be alone. Sometimes, you’ll see a group of sweeps forming a trellis with their brooms, under which the bride and groom perform a ceremonial walk in front of their guests. To touch a chimney sweep’s buttons will increase the couple’s chances of staying together, but to be really lucky they’ll need to have a drink from his coal shovel.
The New Year Connection
For Germans, the idea of chimney sweeps as bearers of good luck also extends to New Year. New Year’s Eve is known in Germany as Silvester as it is the feast day of Pope Sylvester I, later made a saint by the Catholic Church. But the custom of marking the New Year can be traced back to pagans of ancient times who observed twelve Rauhnächte, designed to rid a house of evil spirits by smoking them out with sage, elder bark, or spruce resin. The superstitious considered it dangerous to be out on such nights, and as time passed, a series of good luck traditions arose to ensure one’s safe passage.
One of them involved the chimney sweep. These days, the Schornsteinfeger still plays a symbolic role, reminding people it is he who can brush away any evil spirits which linger in a smoky fireplace. Germans still practice making lots of noise by letting off fireworks or even banging kitchen utensils together to ward off these spirits . They exchange good luck charms such as ladybirds, marzipan pigs and four-leafed clovers, reminding today’s Germans of their past. So, if a chimney sweep attends your New Year’s Eve party, consider it an auspicious sign.