Friday the 13th: Eight strange superstitions that Germans hold dearly

It's Friday the 13th, so we thought we’d take a look at some German superstitions - and how to get some good luck.

A chimney sweep (Schornsteinfeger in German) in a pedestrian zone in Wernigerode, Saxony-Anhalt in October 2021.
A chimney sweep (Schornsteinfeger in German) in a pedestrian zone in Wernigerode, Saxony-Anhalt in October 2021. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Matthias Bein

1. Spit on your fellow actors’ shoulders before a play

Photo: Wikipedia 

Theatres are famously superstitious places, and theatres in Germany are no different. British and American thespians cheerily tell each other to “break a leg” before the premiere to avoid bad luck, but Germans take it a little further and spit on each other’s left shoulders.

Make sure you only do so once you’re in costume though. or it won’t work. And at the same time you have to say: “Toi Toi Toi.”

2. Pressing your thumbs
Photo: Wikipedia
While English speakers cross their fingers for luck, Germans hold their thumbs or “drücken die Daumen”. This appears to come from the days of ancient Rome and gladiator fighting where the emperor would indicate whether the losing fighter was to be executed (thumbs up means sword out and the man dies) or not (thumb hidden means sword sheathed and the man lives).

3. Never give knives as gifts

Photo: Pixabay

Giving a German knives as a gift means that you’re cutting through the friendship, so make sure you steer clear when looking for a house-warming present. And avoid gifting your lover shoes, too. It is said that if they then run away it is your fault.

4. Never wish someone a happy birthday before the actual day

Photo: Pxhre
In other parts of the world, wishing someone happy birthday before the actual day is considered pretty normal. If you’re not going to see that person on the day or just because you might forget, you say happy birthday in advance. In Germany, however, this is widely considered to bring bad luck, even if the birthday wishes are only a few minutes early. 
The tradition of “reinfeiern” in Germany or literally “celebrating into” is when guests gather the evening before someone’s birthday to celebrate, and wish the birthday boy or girl a happy birthday, in stereotypical German fashion, precisely when the clock strikes midnight.
5. Always make eye contact during toasts

Photo: DPA

Whenever you clink glasses with anyone, always remember to maintain eye contact or you could be cursed with bad sex. Regardless of who you’re with or what you’re drinking, bear this in mind as the curse lasts for seven years.

Nobody really knows where this superstition comes from, but some say that it could date back to the middle ages when poisoning was very common. Eye contact was supposed to establish trust between hosts and guests that nothing was poisoned but the consequences would’ve been slightly worse than a few years of bad sex, namely death.

6. Never light cigarettes from candles

Photo: Pixabay

Given that you can’t smoke in many public spaces anymore and the fact that candles and matches have been replaced by lighters as the preferred method of lighting cigarettes, you probably won’t break this rule anytime soon. Good thing too, as it is said that every time you do, a sailor dies.

The reason for this superstition is actually quite logical as in olden days sailors used to make matches to tide them over in the winter months when they couldn’t go out to sea. Therefore, by using a candle instead of a match, you were robbing sailors of their temporary living.

7. Always knock on the table when you sit down in a pub

Photo: DPA

Whenever you arrive at a pub or bar, you should always knock twice on the table. Why? To show your friends that you aren’t the devil of course!

According to legend, the Stammtisch, the regular’s table in the tavern, was traditionally made of oak which the devil was unable to touch as the tree was holy. Knocking on the table proved you weren’t the devil in disguise. It is always good to be sure after all.

8. Being touched by a chimney sweep

Photo: DPA
If you have broken one of these rules and garnered some bad luck along the way, then perhaps consider befriending your local chimney sweep to put yourself in the clear of any unfortunate accidents.
Chimney sweeps are considered lucky as their services meant people could cook food again after having blocked chimneys and also reduced the risk of the house burning down. And if you get ash from a chimney sweep in your face, it’s considered lucky.
For members


Living in Germany: Battles over Bürgergeld, rolling the ‘die’ and carnival lingo

From the push to reform long-term unemployment benefits to the lingo you need to know as Carnival season kicks off, we look at the highlights of life in Germany.

Living in Germany: Battles over Bürgergeld, rolling the 'die' and carnival lingo

Deadlock looms as debates over Bürgergeld heat up 

Following a vote in the Bundestag on Thursday, the government’s planned reforms to long-term unemployment benefits are one step closer to becoming reality. Replacing the controversial Hartz IV system, Bürgergeld (or Citizens’ Allowance) is intended to be a fair bit easier on claimants.

Not only will the monthly payment be raised from €449 to €502, but jobseekers will also be given a grace period of two years before checks are carried out on the size of their apartment or savings of up to €60,000. The system will also move away from sanctions with a so-called “trust period” of six months, during which benefits won’t be docked at all – except in very extreme circumstances. 

Speaking in parliament, Labour Minister Hubertus Heil (SPD) said the spirit of the new system was “solidarity, trust and encouragement” and praised the fact that Bürgergeld would help people get back into the job market with funding for training and education. But not everyone is happy about the changes. In particular, politicians from the opposition CDU/CSU parties have responded with outrage at the move away from sanctions.

CDU leader Friedrich Merz has even branded the system a step towards “unconditional Basic Income” and argued that nobody will be incentivised to return to work. 

The CDU and CSU are now threatening to block the Bürgergeld legislation when it’s put to a vote in the Bundesrat on Monday. With the conservatives controlling most of the federal states – and thus most of the seats in the upper house – things could get interesting. Be sure to keep an eye out for our coverage in the coming weeks to see how the saga unfolds. 

Tweet of the week

When you first start learning German, picking the right article to use can truly be a roll of the “die” – so we’re entirely on board with this slightly unconventional way to decide whether you’re in a “der”, “die”, or “das” situation. (Warning: this may not improve your German.) 

Where is this?

Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Boris Roessler

Residents of Frankfurt am Main and the surrounding area will no doubt recognise this as the charming town of Kronberg, which is nestled at the foot of the Taunus mountains.

This atmospheric scene was snapped on Friday morning, when a drop in temperatures saw Kronberg and surrounding forests shrouded in autumnal fog.

After a decidedly warm start to November, the mercury is expected to drop into single digits over the weekend. 

Did you know?

November 11th marked the start of carnival season in Germany. But did you know that there’s a whole set of lingo to go along with the tradition? And it all depends on where you are. First of all, the celebration isn’t called the same thing everywhere. In the Rhineland, it’s usually called Karneval, while people in Bavaria or Saxony tend to call it Fasching. Those in Hesse and Saarland usually call it Fastnacht. 

And depending on where you are, there are different things to shout. The ‘fools call’ you’ll hear in Cologne is “Alaaf!” If you move away from Cologne, you’ll hear “Helau!” This is the traditional cry in the carnival strongholds of Düsseldorf and Mainz, as well as in some other German cities.

In the Swabian-Alemannic language region in the southwest of the country, people yell “Narri-Narro”, which means “I’m a fool, you’re a fool”. In Saarland at the French border, they shout “Alleh hopp!”, which is said to originate from the French language. 

Lastly, if someone offers you a Fastnachtskrapfe, say yes because it’s a jelly-filled carnival donut. And if you’re offered a Bützchen? It’s your call, but know that it’s a little kiss given to strangers!