Today, on the first of the month, I wondered where some of these traditions originated as I wished everyone a happy new month. The Greeks say Καλό μήνα (Kaló mína), which translates to a good month. But it should be the first thing you say that morning. Some British friends say Rabbit Rabbit, or White Rabbit to wish each other a happy new month. There are so many superstitions like this. But what are they, and why do we believe in them?
Belief in superstition is just being human. Even the biggest skeptic may step over a crack or walk around a ladder. Everyone has irrational beliefs, whether they learn them in childhood or use them to understand something their rational brain cannot comprehend. Some may stem from well-meaning parents who use the monster in the old house to keep their child from entering it.
The American Psychological Association (APA) defines superstitious behavior as “behavior that results from accidental reinforcement of an action so that the organism continues to repeat it. For example, a rat that turned in a circle before accidentally hitting a bar and obtaining food might continue turning in a circle before pressing the bar.”
Here are some of the most common, in no particular order.
Beginner’s Luck- This is often claimed when the novice at a game or sport wins. However, it is usually simply the fact that the rookie is less stressed over winning. Or maybe it’s just a statistical fluke.
Find a penny, pick it up- and all day long, you’ll have good luck, the rest of the saying goes. Well, of course, finding money brings good luck.
Walking under a ladder- It would seem that this makes sense in terms of safety. You wouldn’t want something to fall on you. But in some older religions, a triangle, such as that formed by a ladder, is a sacred plane, and breaking that could bring disaster.
A black cat crossing your path- As many of us keep cats as pets, and they have long been part of mythology, even the ancient Egyptians worshipped them; why would a cat bring bad luck? Most likely, these date from the belief in witches and their familiars. Adolf Hitler and Napoleon Bonaparte may have conquered nations, but both feared black cats.
Lucky rabbit’s foot- well, maybe not for the rabbit. Talismans and amulets have long been believed to ward off evil. The most common roots for the rabbit’s foot either hark back to the early Celts or the Native Americans. (Hmmm… maybe something to add to book 3?)
Bad luck comes in threes- Possibly not, but after two bad things happen, maybe we look for the third. Breaking a shoelace as you dress for work might not be so bad unless it follows two other things that didn’t go right.
Breaking a mirror- wow, this one can bring seven years of bad luck. This idea seems to stem from the old belief that a mirror not only reflected your image but captured a bit of your soul. This may explain why they covered the mirrors in the house when someone died in the Old South.
Knock on Wood- It seems designed to ward off tempting fate after something you have said. Most likely, this dates back to mythology when trees were sacred and associated with good spirits.
Wishing on a wishbone- I remember this bit of turkey tug-of-war from my childhood. Most agree it dates back to the Romans who believed the wishbone was lucky, often fighting over them. Since they were easily broken, the luck went with the larger half.
Crossing your fingers- who hasn’t crossed their fingers for something they wish for?
Opening an umbrella indoors- supposedly brings bad luck. This one has many origin stories, including a young woman who opened one inside her house moments before the roof collapsed.
Friday, the 13th– a relatively recent addition to the list, this most likely dates back to the 1800s. Thirteen has long been considered unlucky. Many buildings don’t label a 13th floor, nor airlines a row 13. The Stress Management Center of North Carolina records over 17 million people fear Friday the 13th and often fall prey to the mind associating events with the date.
Horseshoes- In many cultures, horseshoes are considered lucky. Place a horseshoe in your home to fill it with good luck, but make sure the opening is up, so the luck doesn’t spill out.
Saying god bless you- It may be just good manners, but saying this after someone sneezes is a common superstition. This probably stems from the belief the person was expelling evil, such as in 6th century Europe. Or in the 17th century during the plague.
Throwing salt over your shoulder- probably similar to knocking on wood, it wards off bad vibes and evil that may tempt fate.
Step on a crack- and break your mother’s back? Who would want to do that? This one dates back to the early European belief that cracks were weak points between the world of the living and the dead.
How many of these do you believe in? They all make sense to me, except for the black cat. Our cat, Odie, was one of the sweetest cats I’ve ever owned.