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July 30, 2014, 5:17 pm

Cross your fingers and ‘Gesundheit!’

According to Webster’s New World Dictionary, a superstition is any belief or attitude based on fear or ignorance, inconsistent with the known laws of science or with what is generally considered as true and rational. I recently discussed with a colleague how we would go out of our way to avoid certain things in the past that we believed were bad for us. The superstitions we held back in the day may seem silly today, but they definitely had an impact on our behavior.

Our conversation prompted me to go back some ten years to when I wrote about superstitions. I asked then, and ask again today; are you superstitious? Let us again look at superstitions that were most prevalent back in the day.

Most of us had our first experience with superstitions as children. Perhaps you recall birthday parties when you were told that if you blew out all the candles on the cake with one breath and made a wish, it would come true. You must also recall never throwing away food or candy that you accidentally dropped on the ground or floor. You simply picked it up, kissed it and held it up to heaven. Silly, I know, but in your mind, it became clean and was safe to eat.

Brick sidewalks presented a problem; it was considered bad luck to step on the cracks in the sidewalk. I always avoided the cracks on cement sidewalks, but had no clue as to whether this superstition applied to brick sidewalks. What about the penny you found lying on the sidewalk? Did you immediately pick it up, or did you pause to see if thead or tail was up? Recall what you thought was going on when it was raining and sunny at the same time. According to superstition, the devil was beating his wife. Speaking of rain, did you really think there was a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow?

Did you understand the significance of spitting on your bat when you played baseball? It was supposed to give you good luck. When walking with another person, it was considered bad luck if you walked on opposite sides of a pole. Everyone avoided black cats. A black cat walking in front of you was believed to be a clear sign of bad luck. Of all superstitions, I am still haunted by a black cat passing in front of me. Close behind is the ladder; I just will not walk under a ladder. Avoiding the black cat crossing my path, as well as not walking under a ladder remain with me from back in the day.

Can you still see your mother or grandmother throwing salt over her shoulder? Spilled salt or a broken mirror were both bad signs. I can recall breaking a mirror as a child and my mother attempting to take responsibility for it. A broken mirror meant seven years of bad luck. I understand that this superstition had its origin far back in the day. In Roman times, people would look at their reflections in pools of water. Some believed that these reflections were in fact “glimpses of the soul.” Any disruption to the water, such as a stone being thrown into it, would bring bad luck to the person looking in. This is one of those superstitions that live on to this day.

Our parents also had this thing about opening an umbrella indoors. They also believed that you had to leave a building by the same door that you entered. On New Year’s Day, I can still see my mother running down the hall to stop guests from entering our home. It was believed that a man had to be the first person through the front door on Jan. 1. What about Friday the 13th? This was a day when some people refused to leave the house. This is supposedly a bad-luck day because Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden on a Friday, Noah's flood started on a Friday, and Christ was crucified on a Friday. Christians also noted that12 witches plus one devil are present at Satanic ceremonies, so Friday and 13 made a deadly combination. Others point to the number in attendance at the Last Supper.

I am sure all of you have heard these superstitions. Your mother insisted that you wear clean underwear all of the time, right? The reason? If you were in an accident, it was unacceptable for the paramedics to see you wearing dirty underwear. Do you believe it is bad luck to put a hat on a bed? Or what about getting out of bed on the same side that you got in? If a bird flew into your house through an open door or window, it was a sign of death. On the other hand, if bird droppings landed in your hair, this was a sign of good luck in the future.

While I have heard many superstitions, these are new to me. According to my sister, if you are extremely ill, do not lie down. Remain in a sitting position and prop yourself up with pillows. This will keep death away. If you dream of falling off of a building or a mountain, please do not hit the ground in your dream, as you will not wake up, but will die in your sleep.

As there were no tests back in the day to predict the sex of a baby, some grandparents suspended a wedding band by a thread over the palm of the pregnant girl. If the ring swung in an oval or circular motion the baby would be a girl. If it swung in a straight line the baby would be a boy. If your right hand itches, you will get money. If your left hand does, you are going to give money to someone. A piece of string or thread on your clothing was a sign that money was on its way.

While most people I have talked to claim they are not superstitious, in reality they are. A lot of people will not put up a new calendar for the new year until the old one has passed. Does the bridegroom still avoid seeing his potential bride on the evening before the wedding and on the morning of the wedding? According to superstition, the bride should not be seen by him until she walks down the aisle and they meet at the altar.

Here are a few more! If you are a smoker, you dare not participate in having three cigarettes lit with one match. If you observe a horseshoe hanging over the doorway of a friend’s home, it will be difficult for that friend to convince you he is not superstitious. Some people refuse to be photographed if they are in the middle of three subjects. They will not admit that they believe the person in the middle will meet an untimely death. Did you believe that if you used the same pencil to take a test that you used to study for it, the pencil would remember the answers? If someone collects elephants, must their trunks face the door?

I am certain there are many, many superstitions that I have omitted. There are superstitions that you embrace, just as I embrace some. But, as you call on your superstitions to fight off the demons or to bring you good luck, think about the luck that is supposed to come from having a rabbit’s foot. Clearly it did not bring the rabbit good luck. So much for the credibility of superstitions. But as silly and ridiculous as superstitions may be, they do serve one purpose; they take us back to some fond memories and great moments that most of us refer to as, back in the day.

 

Alonzo Kittrels can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or The Philadelphia Tribune, Back In The Day, 520 S. 16th St., Philadelphia PA 19146.