Superstitions have such a cozy little corner reserved in my heart. I remember holding my breath every time my mother drove me through the Bankhead Tunnel as a child growing up in Mobile. I would panic, dare there be tourists slowing down in the skinny-laned enclosure, but I would stick to the mission I set out on: to make it to the end of the tunnel without taking a single breath, so that then, and only then, would my wish be granted. To be honest, I’m not actually sure if I ever made a single wish. Though, to be fair, I never made it to the end of the tunnel because my lovely sister, who is always my biggest cheerleader, would reach up from the back-back of the van and tickle me until a gasped a giggle. Oh, that sweet, supportive sibling camaraderie.
Holding my breath wasn’t nearly my most frequently administered superstition:
I fought for the wishbone every holiday dinner.
I still throw salt over my shoulder daily.
I cook black eye peas and greens for my family on new year’s day, just like my mom did when I was a kid. This one is hard to forget, since my sister hated all things that grew from the dirt, and my mother would actually put one pea on her plate and make her eat it.
“Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight. I wish I may, I wish I might, have this wish I wish tonight.” Every single night of my childhood.
I always thought I would catch a cold when I went outside with wet hair, which created a lot of anxiety for a child with super thick hair that had twenty minutes to shower between volleyball practice that the late bell.
I picked up heads-up pennies, and either flipped over or kicked tails-up coins in the bushes, dare anyone come behind me and be paying less attention; I couldn’t carry a stranger’s bad luck on my conscious.
My grandmother always told me, every time I fiddled with my ears, that someone must be talking about me. She was always so sure, too. Maybe it was her making the gossip, looking back on it.
My friends and I would pick up our feet crossing railroad tracks and bridges in the car, which morphed into a gaggle of squealing middle school weeble wobbles in an incredibly confined space, with my ever so patient mother behind the wheel. I would apologize to her for this today, along with all the other annoying crud I pulled as a silly kid, but as my humble parents have so sweetly pointed out to me more than a few times this year, karma has such a wonderful sense of humor.
Weddings are superstitious gold, not just here in the south, but all around the world. “Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue” is a harbinger of luck for the union. A penny in the shoe is a superstitious action to bring wealth and stability to the couple. The bride wearing a veil supposedly keeps the groom from running off before the vows. Catching the bouquet leads to being the next to wed. We could be here for days analyzing the lore of wedding rituals. But you get the idea.
Superstitions, seem to create patterns of control, of knowing. These beliefs hold that if you follow through with actions, however unrelated they may seem to your problem, you can predict your own outcome and control the future that was previously left to chance. Superstitions are tied to normal daily occurrences that may really mean nothing aside from the naturally intended, but everyone has heard of that friend’s cousin’s best friend’s careless action of stepping on a crack, and three days later, boom. Her mom’s in the hospital having spinal surgery.
Some essays tie these superstitions with the uneducated, saying that people who have never been taught the science of the thing, or the cause and effect of normal happenings are doomed to put their own uneducated guesses as to what is really unfolding before them. I don’t believe that to be the case. In the nature of stories passed down through the generations, stories are skewed and morphed into the creature features we hear today (or get roped into forwarding to eleven people before the end of the day, lest we get a phone call from the beyond foreboding our death in three days’ time).
Stories of superstition in the South are, many times, cryptic love children of African and European origins, deriving from ages when people had dear ties to the earth and the natural order of the human condition. Ghosts and Goosebumps, a wonderful book of Alabama stories and superstitions compiled by Jack and Olivia Solomon, describes superstitions as having three properties: “an underlying concept or belief, the language that conveys that belief, and the commission or omission of action or practice as required or dictated by the belief and the statement.” Beliefs can be false, and actions can be completely unrelated. Basically, it all sounds like nonsense, and sure, most of the time it is. For example, please don’t kill a snake and wrap its body around your foot if it bites you. Seek actual medical attention. But some superstitions do have some air of truth to them.
While I do not believe that if a pregnant woman touches a sage bush, it will die, sage is classified as a uterine stimulant by western medical studies, so ladies probably shouldn't risk it either way.
Touching frogs doesn't really cause warts, as warts are a virus carried by humans, but some frogs do secrete a poison from their glands that acts as a skin irritant, so it’s close.
Animals predicting weather patterns has been a long-standing superstition across the globe. The funny thing is, dogs seek shelter in beautiful weather knowing a thunderstorm is coming. Elephants panic long before we feel an earthquake coming. Sharks swim to deeper water in the early wake of a hurricane. While this is due to their senses, changes in pressure, and more completely scientific explanations, if I was alive long before the technology was available to test these theories, it would have been in my best interest to listen to what my dog was trying to tell me.
Sliced onion would be placed in the room of a sick person to act as an absorbent to draw in the illness away from the person it was inflicting. Turns out, onions and garlic do have antibiotic effects on a person’s system, but only from the inside. For onions to ward off illness, you’ll have to eat them.
The idea of the placebo effect has proven itself a useful practice on the human psyche, and this is why I believe people will always hold superstition with such respect. The things we witness while driving around a southern town that are superstitious rituals to protect people and their neighbors from harm and misfortune always make that little porch swing inside my heart sway a little smoother: the blue bottle trees catching evil by the footpath, the mirrors placed near entryways to distract the devil from entering homes, seeing veteran gardeners all planting on the same day when the moon aligns with the almanac, frizzy haired hens roaming yards and scratching up hexes placed on neighbors, kids blowing dandelions and chasing dragonflies for luck, crossing fingers and throwing pennies in the well.
With all of the harsh realities of today’s world, who is to argue with a little peace of mind? It eases my worries to be surrounded by folks that are working hard to protect others and keep loved ones safe in any way they know how. So next time you find yourself gazing at the vast open skies waiting for a star to fall, as they have been known to do in adding to the luck of this land, know that you are not alone. You are sharing this sight and sentiment with an entire planet of people, past and present, that felt it imperative to keep sacred a little pinch of magic.