Chimneys and chimney sweeps figure in folklore and legend not only in Britain but in many other countries around the world. Chimney sweeps are honoured by festivals and appear in literature. We thought you'd quite enjoy a small insight into some of these legends, festivals and curious customs.
Annual Leave (And A Free Lunch)
Traditionally the May Day holiday (May 1st) was celebrated by chimney sweeps as their annual holiday. Although sadly this tradition slowly began to die out as child labour laws meant young boys were banned from climbing inside chimneys to clean them. But it was revived in Rochester, Kent where the Sweeps' Festival is a very merry occasion. It takes place over a weekend in early May and features morris dancers and a foliage covered character known as 'Jack In The Green' who has been woken from his slumber on Bluebell Hill. The Sweeps' Festival attracts thousands of people every year, dressed as chimney sweeps who walk in procession through the town centre to kick off the festivities.
Tradition claims that King George II was riding in his carriage one day when his horses bolted. A sweep bravely leapt forward and stopped them. The grateful King was so delighted that he issued a Royal Decree that chimneys sweeps are lucky and should be treated with respect.
Sweeping With A Bang
Extraordinary (and dangerous) methods of chimney sweeping were employed many years ago. Becasue country gentlemen found muzzle-loading guns difficult to unload after a day's shooting they oftern fired them up the chimney to dislodge any built-up soot. This method became immortalised in the "Merry Wives of Windsor" by William Shakespeare himself! A casualty of the practise of firing guns up them was the palace at Dijon, France, which burnt downt in the spring of 1503 when a culverin was fired up it in an attempt to clean it. However the town was not without a palace for long as a splendid new one was soon built.
Bringing Good & Bad Luck
Probably the best known traditions regarding chimney sweeps relate to weddings. It is considered lucky to see a chimney sweep on your wedding day and even luckier to see his brush emerging from a chimney, and perhaps the luckiest thing of all is for the bride to be kissed by a sweep.
Chimney's were once swept by various plants such as heather and gorse tied in bunches and fixed to poles, however folklore warned against using holly. It is said that Holly is a "gentle tree" well liked by the fairies who would object to its use in this way and create mischief in the house all year as a punishment.
In September every year a Sweeps' Festival takes place in the village of Santa Maria Maggiore in Italy. It was established in 1983 when 13 chimney sweeps met to chat and walk around the town. Since then it has grown steadily and now sweeps travel from many European countries to attend the festival. There is much merrymaking and feasting and a procession takes place in the town which is now so long it takes nearly an hour to pass by. A Sweeps' museum was opened on the 5th April 2005 following the strong successes of the Sweeps' Festival.
Around The World
As in Britain, chimney sweeps in Poland are considered lucky. But there is a catch... To benefit from the luck of a chimney sweep, upon first seeing the sweep, you must instantly take hold of a button on your shirt or coat to make a wish, to hesitate for a second cancels out the luck. Saint Florian, the patron saint of Poland is alos the patron saint of Chimney sweeps. An Irish tradition states that after a chimney sweep had finished his work, the housewife would brush the soot off the tail of his coat and save it in a container. This should then be placed in the hearth to bring peace and harmony to the house.
In some European countries house-holders fix old wagon wheels to disused chimneys to encourage storks to nest there. The birds' habit of nesting in high places including chimneys may account for the legend that babies are brought by the stork and delivered down the chimney!