Superstition Dead lucky! What Germans consider lucky charms

Anton the coachman
Anton the coachman | Photo (detail): Tatjana Kerschbaumer

Black cats, Friday the 13th, and knocked-over saltshakers – they all bring bad luck, or so we fear. But there is a remedy: good luck charms can keep calamity at bay. Some traditional German lucky charms go back centuries, and are often rooted in popular Christian legends.

Clover and ladybugs: Christian symbols as lucky charms

Clover, for example, the quintessential symbol of good luck in Germany, is of Christian origin. But don’t forget: it has to have four leaves! Three-leafed clover doesn’t count. According to Christian legend, when Eve was driven out of the Garden of Eden she took a four-leaf clover with her – to remember the good times in paradise by later on. So market gardens grow millions of potted clover plants for gift-givers at New Year’s. But hardliners say they’re cheating. To really bring good luck your four-leaf clover has to be found in the wild - where exemplars are very few and far between. So whoever does find them must be quite fortunate indeed – in which case good luck comes full circle.

The ladybug is another Christian symbol of luck. As its name in German, Marienkäfer, suggests, the little red bug with black spots is associated with the Virgin Mary. Popular legend has it she sent the bug down to earth as a gift – especially for farmers, seeing as ladybugs eat up aphids and other crop-chomping pests. So when they saw ladybugs crawling up and down the cornstalks or whizzing from one tree to another in the orchard, they were more likely to have a bountiful harvest. And a bumper crop was a very fortunate occurrence indeed. To this day many Germans believe you’re in luck when a ladybug lands on you, no doubt mistaking you for a tree.

Why pigs and chimney sweeps?

“Schwein gehabt” (meaning “got lucky there!” – though literally: “got pig!”) is an oft-used expression in Germany. The beast in question is associated with good luck in German and is now often gifted in the form of a marzipan pig. Swine don’t have a whole to do with Christianity, except when it comes to absorbing cast-out demons. The reason they’re tied in with good fortune is quite simple: to possess plenty of pigs was a sign of wealth and prosperity in the Middle Ages. Their owners would never go hungry. Like a good harvest, successful breeding was reckoned a sign of good fortune. Though no-one knows why cattle, sheep and chickens never made the grade.

The chimney sweep brings good luck in Germany for similarly pragmatic reasons: when the chimney was stopped up, the man in black had to be called in to clear the flue so you could finally cook your food again. A clean sweep also reduced the risk of setting the house on fire. So to this day we consider it good luck to see a chimney sweep. And you’re even luckier if you get to turn one of the silver buttons on his black uniform – which is why plenty of German chimney sweeps are missing buttons that have got torn off in the process.

Which way to hang a horseshoe?

So wealth and food are writ large in gauging good fortune. But some folks are more romantic. It’s thanks to lovers that the horseshoe is a symbol of good luck. Before the days of telephone and text-messaging, people sat down and wrote love letters, which came by stagecoach – drawn by horses. Getting your hands on such a horse’s shoe was rated even luckier than receiving the love letter itself. Traditionally, people hang a horseshoe over their front door. But they’re of different minds on which direction: some hang the shoe so it opens upwards to keep the good luck from falling out. Others have it open downwards – precisely so the luck can come out.
  • Roxy (25), medical technical assistant Photo: Tatjana Kerschbaumer
    Roxy (25), medical technical assistant
    Roxy’s grandma gave her this lucky charm when she was three years old. Washed and darned countless times since then, this funny-looking creature she calls Mumin has always been her favourite cuddle toy. And she still takes Mumin along to exams.
  • Anton (65), coachman Photo: Tatjana Kerschbaumer
    Anton (65), coachman
    Anton collects and renovates carriages to carry tourists around in. His pride and joy is an old stage-coach. It certainly brings him good luck, he says, and is a favourite with newlyweds in particular.
  • Richard (19), student Photo: Tatjana Kerschbaumer
    Richard (19), student
    Richard’s juju is a ring he ordered from a catalogue a few years ago, and he’s been wearing it all the time ever since. The engraved Norse runes spell “Thor”, the mighty thundering and hammer-wielding Germanic god.
  • Dieter (25), student Photo: Tatjana Kerschbaumer
    Dieter (25), student
    Socks are good luck, says Dieter, who routinely shows up for exams and interviews with particularly comfy exemplars on his feet. He often knits his woolly jujus himself.
  • Christoph (61), chocolatier Photo: Tatjana Kerschbaumer
    Christoph (61), chocolatier
    You can buy good luck at Christoph’s chocolate shop, where he sells these cute little chocolate ladybugs all year round. For New Year’s he also makes marzipan clover and lucky pigs.

Of socks and underwear: latter-day German jujus

Besides trusting in traditional lucky charms, a quarter of the German population also believe in the auspicious effects of personal talismans. And there probably isn’t a single object that hasn’t been fetishized by someone. Some always take exams using the same pen or wearing different-coloured socks or even lucky underwear: yes, imagination and superstition know no bounds!

The nice thing is, though, it actually works! In a study conducted in 2010, researcher Lysann Damisch proved that lucky charms actually do have a positive effect on examination results. Simply believing a talisman can help you handle a challenge gives you a boost, as if by magic. No matter whether it’s a four-leaf clover, a marzipan pig or your own lucky underwear.