FAQs about the Topping Out Tradition
What is “topping out”?
In modern times, immediately following the placement of the final piece of structural steel framework of a building, a flag is hoisted to the top of the structure. Ironworkers who, of course, deny they are superstitious, say it brings good luck.
How did the topping out tradition begin?
The topping out ceremony traces its roots back to the traditional topping out ceremonies in the areas now known as Germany and the lower Scandinavian countries.
Although its precise beginnings are now obscured by time, it is generally believed that the custom began when villagers placed a live pine tree on the top of a house or barn that was under construction. The tree acted as a talisman to bring good luck and to ward off evil spirits. When the tree was placed on the roof, the homeowner hosted a celebration for all of the villagers who had helped in the construction of the house or in the barn raising. The tree remained in place until the building was completely finished.
What is behind the topping out tradition?
According to ancient history, the success or failure of building ventures was usually attributed to the gods being worshipped rather than to the skill of the builder. To appease these spirits, sacrifices (human as well as other types) were offered by builders to exorcise the evil spirits who might have taken residence in the building’s framework during construction. In early China, chicken blood, as a substitute for human blood, was smeared on the ridgepole in the hope of fooling the gods.
Bridges posed special problems and goaded the fears and superstitions of the ancients. Xerxes, the famed Persian military leader, blamed recalcitrant rival gods for the collapse of a pontoon bridge over the Hellespont. To punish and shackle these gods, the water was given 300 lashes and a pair of manacles was thrown into the strait. History records that during the religious ceremonies marking construction by the Romans of the Pons Sublicius over the Tiber in 621 B.C., human beings were thrown into the water as sacrifices to the gods.
Around A.D. 700, the practice in the Scandinavian countries was for all the neighbors to aid in the construction work up to and including the installation of a building’s ridgepole. When the ridgepole was finally in place, an evergreen tree was attached to it as a signal for the beginning of a completion party. In later times in these Scandinavian countries, and also in the Black Forest, it was customary to fasten a sheaf of corn to the gable. The corn was believed to serve as food for Woden’s horse and as a charm against lightning. In more recent times, garlands of flowers or sheaves of corn were duplicated in wood, stone or terra-cotta on Gothic buildings. Such agrarian decoration is perhaps a survival of the ancient custom.
A popular custom in Europe (and still observed to some degree) is the practice of attaching a sapling to the upper-most point of the structure. This practice is believed to be descended from the ancient belief in the benign influence of the tree-inhabiting spirits. In some places it was, and still is, the practice to decorate the bough with flowers, ribbons, and strings of eggs to symbolize the life-giving power assumed to be the spirit’s special attribute.
Through the years, the various forms of sacrifice and foliage were replaced by a handkerchief and then by a flag.