“The less there is to justify a traditional custom, the harder it is to get rid of it”
― Mark Twain
Common Traditions and Rituals We All Do
In our modern day society we think we are above superstition. We, however, do things every day that are based on superstition. Here is a list of some of the most common rituals we do every day and their superstitious origins. Spoiler alert: we do a lot of things to ward off evil spirits.
Ever wonder why we put candles on a birthday cake and blow them out? It all started with the Ancient Greeks. Make a wish and as you blow out the candles the smoke carries your wish to the gods. Which ones? Well, most likely whichever one you want. The Greeks liked to bake cakes and put candles on top to petition Artemis, the moon goddess, for wishes. Next time you blow out candles on a cake thank Artemis for this ancient ritual.
It’s polite to say bless you after someone sneezes. It is also rooted in a lot of superstition and a little bit of ignorance. If you sneezed hard enough in ancient Rome it was thought that your soul could escape your body. A blessing would keep it firmly rooted in your body where it belongs. In Europe during the 6th century it was believed that sneezes were caused by evil spirits leaving the body and the persson deserved to be congratulated for ridding themselves of evil. I feel I’ve had some sneezes that could qualify for this. During the Black Plague things got so bad the pope required people to be blessed when they sneezed. It was believed that you would sneeze right before you died. Somehow this feels a little less ridiculous than it would have pre- 2020.
A Myriad of Reasons For Toasting
In a nutshell we toast to keep bad things away. If you prescribe to the Medieval mentality, toasting served to ward off demons and evil spirits. If you are German, feel free to slosh some of that alcoholic goodness on the floor to rid yourself of the more type A evil spirits. Apparently the spilled liquid would keep them away. A nice sloppy toast was also thought to discourage poisonings. Yes, poisonings. The logic is that some of your drink would spill into others glasses. If everyone freely takes a sip of the newly shared drink you know no one was trying to poison you. Keep your friends close i guess?
Why Toasting with Water is a No-no
Never, ever toast with water. It is considered bad luck. You wanna know why? The ancient Greeks used water to toast the dead. It was a sort of encouragement for them to drink from the River Lethe in the Underworld. Officially this drink is when they leave this world behind for good and go into the afterlife in peace. As anyone who has ever played telephone will tell you, messages get distorted with time and distance. This well meaning toast of water eventually evolved into a belief that to toast with water is to wish bad luck and even death on your comrades.
Never bring your old broom or cleaning clothes into a new home.
I have heard this from many people for many reasons. Mainly people say a move is a good time to start over and a convenient time to throw away any old cleaning items. This idea runs deep in American society. The older version goes even further to say you should burn your old cleaning clothes before you move. If you bring these old utensils into your new home you are inviting any old bad luck you wiped up at the old place to move into your new place with you.
Paint Your Porch Blue
This is one of my favorite traditions. Next time you’re in New Orleans look at all the Haint Blue porches, specifically the porch ceilings. There’s a ton of explanations for this. The name comes from the idea that painting your porch ceiling blue will ward off spirits, or haints. I have also heard the color will prevent insects from nesting there.
Giving Plants as a Housewarming Gift
Many, many people do this without thinking further than that’s what you do. Yes, they are gifts that, hopefully, last a long time. Yes, they warm up your home and can make it more inviting. Plants, however, are powerful symbols of new beginnings, growth, and change. Some specific plants are believed to bring good luck and fortune.
Short Little TidBits
Wishing on Shooting Stars
Wishing on shooting stars is older than you think it is, like WAY older. We’re going all the way back to Ptolemy in the 1st-century. He believed shooting stars happened when the gods were looking down on Earth. He felt this was a convenient time to nab their attention.
Make a Wish: Pulling on a wishbone
Wishing on a wishbone is another ritual that is surprisingly old. We get this one all the way from the first century Romans. They used to fight over dried wishbones, as it was believed that they were good luck. If they accidentally broke the person with the bigger piece would get what they wished for.
“Knock on Wood”
We’ve all been there, said or did something that seems to tempt fate a little too much. Then we bactrack by saying “knock on wood.” Do you know what you are doing when you say this? You are petitioning the spirits of the trees to bestow you with good luck. You are asking them for help, to have your back to keep the sinister and vengeful fate at bay. Ideally, knocking on wood would also happen after good things happen as a thank you to the tree spirits.
Cross Your Fingers
Ever cross your fingers for good luck? This one dates back to the early Chrisitans. Anything that symbolized the shape of the cross was good luck. This tradition started as a two person job. If your friend had a wish you would cross your index finger over theirs in support. This was a sign of comradery and good will. Over time this simplified into someone being able to cross their fingers themselves. It is still a means of focusing your will. Saying “fingers crossed” to someone is asking for others to put intention behind your wish for support.
Carving Pumpkins: Jack-O-Lanterns
OK, this one is a twisted tale straight from the Celts. There once was a farmer named Jack who drank a lot. He had an adventure that culminated in him tricking the devil. The devil, as he often does however, got the last laugh. This trickery led to Jack being turned away from both heaven and hell when he died. He then had to roam around Purgatory in the dark for eternity. Being cheeky the devil threw a lump of burning coal from hell to Jack. Jack, in turn, carved a lantern out of a turnip and used that to light his way through Purgatory.
The tradition started as lanterns carved from turnips. Scary faces were added later as a means to, you guessed it, scare off evil spirits. Pumpkins didn’t come into use until the Irish came to America while fleeing the potato famine.
Orange and black are the traditional Halloween colors. Orange represents the harvest. It is often the color of the crops and is certainly the color of the changing leaves. Black symbolizes the death of summer and the coming winter season.
LET'S TOAST TO SUPERSTITION
Even in our modern society, our roots and superstitions still speak to us. We don’t even give a second though to many of these rituals. Most are protection charms, designed to give us protection. Others are to promote goodwill and good luck. Whether you believe in the lore behind the traditions, less bad things and more good in our lives are something we can all get behind.