I am endlessly fascinated by those customs that were once taken for granted and now strike us as unusual and am hugely excited when I stumble across them in the modern world.
We have a log burning stove in the living room, and with the nights grown longer and cooler it was time to call in the local sweep ready for a winter of log fires.
Our sweep is always a pleasant, chatty sort of man, plainly happy in his work. That he did not whistle as he walked up the path was the only thing that spoiled the story book image of sweeps through the ages. No vacuum cleaner for this lad. Just a couple of dust sheets and a set brushes. And when he had finished not so much as a smear of soot anywhere.
What has this to do with folklore?
Sweeps clean fires, kiss brides and bring new year luck (all for a fee) so they do seem to be inherently lucky.
We have all been to a wedding where sweeps has been hired to ‘kiss the bride’ for luck. This association with brides is often said to date back to King George III when a barking dog caused the horses pulling the royal carriage to bolt. A sweep stopped the horses, thus saving (?) the King’s life. George then hired that sweep to attend his daughter’s wedding in the belief that the luck would continue. But I think George and his court took far too much credit for a tradition that is far older than this incident.
In previous eras the passing of the fire irons to a new bride as she took possession of the fire and hearth was a symbolic inheriting of the home and prospective new family. In those times black was considered a lucky colour so it was not hard to see how the sweep in his blackened face and clothes, along with his close link with hearths and fire in general, came to be viewed as lucky. The sweep was believed to carry the luck and blessing of fire with him at all times and by shaking his hand some of his luck may rub off onto you.
Coal is also believed to be lucky so when given to you by a sweep the luck could only grow. Not hard to see why the tall dark stranger of new year first footing was often the local sweep. He would tour the streets for his tot and token (drink and coin)to welcome in the new year and one cannot help wondering how many houses he managed to first-foot with a tot at every stop!
In modern times people mostly associate sweeps with luck for brides, but in Sussex at least they are also associated with May and the old fire celebrations of Beltane. Jack O’ Green Sweeps dress in greenery and dance in through streets as a part of the mayday parades, bringing luck to all who shake their hands.
As a child growing up in Sussex, I was always taught that shaking a sweep by the hand was lucky on any day, but that lore seemed to have vanished over the years.
Which brings me back to my sweep, who, as he was leaving, turned and grasped my hand, shook it firmly, and declared with a huge smile, I wish the very best of luck on you and your house.
I was touched by his sincerity and a little touched by the nostalgia of an old custom seemingly coming back to us.