Happy Thanksgiving, Canada! It is one of my favourite weekends of the year.
Today I was thinking about superstitions – when I first heard about them, and how they’ve affected me. I expect my very first exposure was through traditional rhymes like, “Red sky in the morning; sailor’s warning. Red sky at night, sailor’s delight” (or shepherd’s, in some places). But I would guess that weather lore passed down through oral tradition may have more truth to it than other superstitions.
I was very puzzled as a child when my grandmother would stop suddenly and refuse to do something: walk upstairs at the same time someone was walking down, or pass under a ladder. There was no explanation: they were just not done because they “felt wrong.” Of course, one can guess that narrow stairs and brittle ladders (with paint cans above) were not to be messed with, and linked to safety rules! Even the seven years of bad luck following a broken mirror could be understood that way, although a harsh penalty for broken glass. But I remember the beautiful dresser sets that women once had, and I would have hated to break one, too.
I am sure I spent many hours looking for 4-leaf clovers when I was a kid. But some good luck charms were so odd: you could actually buy a Lucky Rabbit’s Foot key chain. Not lucky for the rabbit, we used to joke. Ugh!
Children are always asked what their favourite colour is, and soon they surmise they should have a favourite number. Before you know it, most kids build routines around their favourite things: every morning they have a slice of toast cut diagonally with the crusts trimmed off, and a drink from a Red Cup. Their day seems to go all wrong if they break the tradition.
Childhood is such a funny time. It is hard to distinguish among superstitions, family and religious traditions, the mysteries and wonders of the world, courtesy and social norms.
- If your boyfriend scored his only 3-pointer on the basketball court while wearing his grey Calvin Klein Y-Fronts, are they still lucky ten years later?
- If you walk the same 3 kilometre route in the same direction every evening, is it a routine or a superstition?
- Is a rainbow good luck, or wondrous, or just a fact of nature?
- Would you feel uncomfortable at a dinner party of 13 people? Would you make a point of saying the dog makes # 14?
- Do you think men (or anyone) should take their ball caps off indoors?
- Pink for a girl; blue for a boy?
- If you were at someone’s house and you passed by a picture in the hall that was tilted, would you straighten it?
- Have you ever been initiated (or hazed) into a group?
My childhood was enlivened by Catholic gestures: my parents crossed themselves when driving by a Catholic church, or when an ambulance went by. We could light a votive candle to pray for someone at church. A rosary was a desirable gift. But having a painting of the Sacred (pierced and bleeding) Heart or a gory crucifix in the public areas of your home was deemed to be going too far!
Even now, as a firm supporter of science and reason, I may have given up various superstitions and religious practices, but I have probably just replaced them with rituals and routines that I find comforting. I pay attention to the clock and do a lot of things at the same time each day. I like symmetry (or planned asymmetry) and I am inclined to straighten things. I “prefer” even numbers to odd. I double check that I’ve locked the door of the house when I leave it, and that I have my keys before I close the car door. I follow old rules of behaviour like opening a door for someone and saying, “After you.” I take my shoes off in someone else’s house even when they insist I can keep them on. I love looking at the night sky to find Cassiopeia or maybe a ring around the moon. I have coins and pieces of jewellery that I’ve had since I was 10.
Who is to say what is ritual or routine, what is custom or tradition, what is courtesy, what is belief, what is superstition? Who can even say if we do these things to please others or for ourselves?
At work, there are two old superstitions that trip me up. First, my coworkers are about half-and-half as to whether they say “Bless you/Gesundheit” when someone sneezes, or they say nothing. For those who do, they tend to be somewhat offended when others don’t say it to them. So it is a complicated little dance unless you choose to ignore it and do your own thing! Next, some staff, when they take note of something positive, like “No one has been off sick lately,” they suddenly get all nervous and say “Knock on wood!” (and may actually knock on something wood) and become very concerned that their luck will change or that they have already brought down bad luck by saying it. More in the courtesy arena, some staff say Hello and See You Later every time another staff member arrives at work, goes on break, goes to lunch, goes to a meeting, returns from any of those, or leaves at the end of the day. That could be 8 times a day!
All I can say is that society and culture are very strange indeed. The things we do to belong!
As you may have guessed, I consider myself markedly non-superstitious, but (in true Exacting style), I am on the compulsive side 🙂
See also this post.
I’d be interested to hear if there are any superstitions that you can’t seem to shake, or any that irritate you!
Ha, didn’t know Canada had its own thanksgiving!
I think there’s a different between routines, social rituals, things done for safety and things done for superstition. As you say, somethings may have begun to pass down safety, weather or other lore. I check the doors before we leave but that’s because the rest of my family don’t bother locking them. I don’t imbue anything with luck, good or bad. Though I do scan for four leaf clovers – to give as gifts when laminated. They make a nice gesture.
I do like to look for the Southern Cross in the night sky and feel good when I spot it but I don’t imbue that with any other beliefs.
I am like you, in not adding another layer of meaning, and preferring things “as is”!
Happy Thanksgiving to you!!! I have SO MANY superstitions. My white cat is just as likely to scratch and bite as your black cat though 😉
Thanks! Do you get anxious about following your superstitions or is it all in fun? Do you feel strongly about other people “humouring” you?
Happy Thanksgiving, Dar! Hope you have a lovely day!
I desperately try to pretend I’m not superstitious. I pointedly don’t read Star Signs and I force myself to intentionally ‘cross’ black cats; I feign nonchalance if I break mirrors and deliberately walk under ladders.
But deep-down – I am very superstitious! I have a shiver down my back crossing black cats. I try to walk under ladders but often can’t…then I convince myself that’s ‘just common sense!’
And of course, I still attend a Catholic Church each weekend (describing myself as an extremely liberal Anglo-Catholic.)
One thing I’m not superstitious about though…Friday the 13th (I was born on one!)
I am not superstitious but my Catholic upbringing runs deep and will always be with me even though I am non-practicing. It has given me a certain love of ritual and pageantry.
Oh – and I must be lucky because I often find four leaf clovers. We found one in France which was especially portentous!
Hmmm… well, I do try to wear my orange underwear when the Broncos play – does that count? And if I happen to glance at a digital clock that reads 11:11, I always make a wish. Not that I actually think either of these things works, mind you, it’s just fun to pretend that they do!
That’s a whole other angle I didn’t think of (with the 11:11): assigning meaning to coincidences! But the underwear thing, I am sure that one works…
p.s. I don’t know if y’all get these commercials in Canada (or Australia since I see a few Auzzie comments) but they have a whole series of them – they totally crack me up!
The thing that really annoys me is people trying to predict the upcoming season’s weather based on the last. “We had a harsh winter last year, that means that it is going to be a hot summer.”
My best defense against these people is to just invent my own random weather portents …
Oh, that is the best idea – I should do that! I also groan when (like last winter), people say, “It’s been such a cold winter; what happened to global warming?”
Good post and Happy Thanksgiving. Regarding superstitions, there is a great line from the baseball movie “Bull Durham” with Susan Sarandon, Kevin Costner and Tim Robbins. Paraphrasing Costner’s character Crash Davis, he responds to Sarandon’s Annie Savoy who is mad because he told Robbins’ Nuke Laloosh to avoid having sex as they had been winning – You do not mess with a streak. If you believe you are winning because you are not having sex, then you are. And, you should know that. – If doing a ritual relaxes you and makes you more confident, then you will perform better. Now, I will hum Steve Wonder’s song the rest of the day.
I am a big fan of Bull Durham!
I used to be fairly superstitious about most western things… Somewhere along the way from kid to now, I transitioned from western superstitions to Chinese superstitions. I’m horribly superstitious particularly around Chinese New Year’s. I follow all the customs so much so even my mother balks. Ha.
Before the First Great War, pink was for boys, and blue was for girls. And boys up until the age of 5 or 6 wore dresses, too.
I have seen pix of little boys of that era in their long hair with ringlets, and dresses (graduating to short pants). Hope you are feeling better, Carl.
Despite not being religious, my asian upbringing has tossed quite a few superstitious in my basket. Mostly I’m a very rational person, but that doesn’t stop me from talking to dead ancestors. 🙂
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Rabbits’ feet always grossed me out too.
I wouldn’t consider myself an overly superstitious person. I’m not concerned about my tuxedo kitty bringing bad luck, knocking on wood, stepping on cracks, or saying good-bye to people (but that bothers my husband, so I do it for his sake whenever we’re together). No worries if no one blesses me after I sneeze. But – when we started discussing marriage venues and dates, I made sure my hubby knew I wouldn’t be getting married on the 13th! Not sure why that one bothers me?
I suppose that if your guests would be disturbed by a wedding on the 13th, it might be a distraction! You wouldn’t want them spoiling the day by talking about what a bad omen it was?
I have heard that in the deaf community, it is part of the culture to greet each person and to say goodbye to each person individually. Makes sense!
I’m not superstitious. I can’t remember all the things I’m supposed to do (or not do) to ward off (or avoid) bad things. Raised/reared Catholic – I have habits. I pray when I hear a siren – as taught by the nuns in my school. And I’m certain – certain behaviors will land me straight in hell – unless I’m truly repentant and ask for forgiveness. I absolutely believe if you focus on a thing – you can subconsciously do something to make it happen. If I feared crossing the path of a black cat – I’d probably hurt myself afterwards just from the fear.
Truth is – I avoid cats anyway. A sneaky cat made me scared of them. And – I was once held hostage by one twining it’s way around my legs while I stood on a front porch one day. LOL!
I am always surprised by how many people are afraid of cats, but I shouldn’t be: I have an unpredictable and occasionally nasty one myself!
Great post! No idea how I missed it (I knew I hadn’t commented on your latest one).
I don’t *think* I’m superstitious, but I try not to put shoes on the table or open the umbrella inside. I don’t come across many cats, and walking under ladders, whilst I come across them regularly, seems senseless to walk under them!
I was a little cut up when the BF left the other day for the gym without a goodbye (we were cranky at one another) but I didn’t make a big deal about it, and nothing bad happened cause we didn’t leave on a good note. But I’ll still lay down with him every work day before I leave, so he knows I’m OK with us, and say goodbye.
I don’t have any weird number things, I don’t think! i mean when I was taught floristry I learnt about numbers for that, and I do somewhat keep to them, though I hate to waste a flower due to it! I do have a thing, on a tangent, with using the same bathroom stall, when at school and at work (though the options aren’t as extensive). But I think it’s like normal people, right?