The history of holiday superstitions

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Pulling a wishbone
One holiday superstition is that whoever pulls the larger end of the Thanksgiving wishbone will have good luck
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Don't be spooked by these holiday superstitions.

While we might not regard ourselves as superstitious, there are a number of holiday customs we enjoy which no longer have a basis in reality or fact. Unlike other types of superstitions holiday superstitions are generally happy ones, adding to our good luck rather than protecting us from something bad happening. Probably that's why, from year to year, we practice these superstitions even if we don't know why.




Halloween is an absolute festival of superstitions, combining a wealth of old beliefs and practices. A fear of what could happen in the dark and reserving a day or night when ghosts of the dead returned to visit earth pre-date Christianity. Long ago the dark of night was dangerous. It is rare that we ever experience real dark. It takes work to drive far beyond any artificial illumination to see the dark as people saw it in centuries past.


The dark was a place of accidents and illness and the place of dreams and strange noises. Losing one's way and falling or catching a cold the day after being out at night led easily to supernatural explanations. Was it a shadow or a ghost, or did you fall or were you pushed? And, Was that a trailing vine or a ghostly finger at the back of your neck?


An old prayer asks for protection from things that go bump in the night. Jack-o-lanterns come from long ago. They originate from the old Irish custom of hollowing out a turnip to shelter a candle stump from the wind. Dressing up both mimics tramps or strangers who might disturb a house at night and makes it impossible for the devil to pick you out of a crowd to do you harm. Trick-or-treating harks back to times when the dark was dangerous and strangers might well do you harm under its cover. Fortunately, Halloween is friendlier now.




Only two superstitions figure large in Thanksgiving. The first is the breaking of the turkey wishbone. The name wishbone is enough to tell you what this one is about.


The second relates to serving popcorn with dessert. The story says that after dinner several braves who did not like the Pilgrims vanished into the woods. The Pilgrims were terrified that perhaps sharing their meal with the Native Americans would lead to their death. Suddenly the braves reappeared and were carrying huge baskets filled with popped corn. All was apparently well. There is no factual basis to this story at all, but the website for Plimoth Plantation recently reported that, although they had not found anything resembling a popcorn seed, those digging at the Massachusetts site were still searching! 




This holiday also incorporates customs that can be described as superstitions. If you don't go to sleep, Santa Claus won't come. If you open presents early, the boxes will be empty. If you are naughty, all Santa will leave you is a lump of coal.


Early childhood teachers will tell you that the colors of Christmas are red, green and black(mail!), and they frequently wonder how many children actually know what a lump of coal looks like! In some regions the first child to shout Christmas gift in the morning gets to open the first gift. If you stand under the mistletoe, you may not refuse anyone's kiss.


New Year's Day


Before New Year's Day arrives replace your old broom, mop and other cleaning equipment. Clean your house before New Year's Day, sweeping the last of the old year out with the old broom. Do not do housework or other work and do not pay bills on New Year's Day. 


Eat Hoppin' John (black-eyed peas cooked with smoked meat and vegetables) for good fortune. Perhaps your family eats 12 grapes to start the New Year right. The next day start using your new broom, because a new broom sweeps clean.




Many families who come from Central or South America reserve January 6 each year as the day they give gifts, celebrating the arrival of the Three Wise Men at the stable housing Mary, Joseph and Jesus. Baking a cake filled with tiny trinkets helps predict the kind of good luck you will have for the year. Whoever finds the baby trinket in his or her piece of cake hosts the party the next year.



Where do you begin with a rabbit that lays eggs, especially since even little children can often remember coloring the eggs they now find hidden in the grass? Perhaps the most fun aspect of this superstition is that even young children learn how to share a family pretended tradition.

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