DCPLive is a blog by library staff at the DeKalb County Public Library!
Oct 26 2015

Traditions, Myths and Superstition

by Camille B

Photo of Green CloverI was working as a cashier at a grocery store some years ago when I had the strangest reaction from a customer while ringing up her items. When her final total appeared on the screen, she inhaled sharply like someone had pinched her. When I turned to look at the screen, sure enough her purchases had come up to, you guessed it, $6.66. She promptly turned to the candy rack behind her and added a pack of gum to change the offending numbers. Then, with everything right in her universe again, she walked out of the store looking satisfied, or was it relieved?

The gentleman in line behind her was shaking his head as he placed his items on the counter. I didn’t ask him why, but I figured it was either because he couldn’t make sense out of what he’d just witnessed or he simply didn’t believe in it–luck, karma, jinxes, call it what you will.

According to an article on WebMD titled The Psychology of Superstition, more than half of Americans admitted in a poll to being at least a little superstitious. Says Dr. Stuart Vyse, PhD and author of Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition“Superstitions provide people with the sense that they’ve done one more thing to try to ensure the outcome they are looking for.”

The list is endless for the things that people do, worldwide, to either ensure good luck or ward off the bad–black eyed peas to ring in the new year, throwing rice on the bride and groom, no opening of umbrellas in the house, 7 years of bad luck for broken mirrors–the list goes on and on. Here is A List of Good Luck and Bad Luck Superstitions that includes many we’ve probably heard of at one time or another.

Maybe you don’t think you’re superstitious, you’re much too level headed and practical for that. The WebMD article notes:

Intelligence seems to have little to do with whether or not we subscribe to superstition. …On the Harvard campus–where one would assume there are a lot of intelligent people–students frequently rub the foot of the statue of John Harvard for good luck.”

“Wanting more control or certainty is the driving force behind most superstition. We tend to look for some kind of a rule, or an explanation for why things happen.”

And, as Dr. Vyse explains: “Sometimes the creation of a false certainty is better than no certainty at all, and that is what most research suggests.”

I honestly believe that we are more superstitious than we may think. I believe in the positive placebo effect–if you think something will help you, it may do just that. There is “power in belief.”

So, you may not consider yourself superstitious. You’re not likely to walk around the neighborhood avoiding every crack in the sidewalk for fear of breaking your mother’s back, or avoid step ladders and black cats at all cost, but you may knock on wood for luck, dash a pinch of salt over your shoulder before you eat, or check your horoscope on a daily basis–things that have become more habitual and ritualistic to you than superstitious.   Black Cat

For some, it might be that you’re more of a traditionalist than you are superstitious. Habits, rituals, and customs you hold dear–they have been handed down to you through culture, family or religion and have become a part of who you are. You wore something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue at your wedding. You always bake cookies and let the kids leave them out for Santa. Or, the guys always come over to your house for the Super Bowl.

And what about those traditions we keep but we know not why?

The story is told about a young girl who was one night helping her mother prepare the Christmas dinner. She suddenly turned to her mother and asked the reason why they always cut the end of the ham off before putting it in the pot to boil. Her mother thought about this for a minute and said:

“Honey, you know I don’t know, go and ask your grandmother, it’s the way she always cooked it and that’s how I do it now.”

So the girl went to ask the same question of her grandmother: “Grandma, why do we cut the end of the ham off before we boil it?” The grandmother frowned a while, and finally said:

“You know dear, I don’t know the exact reason, I got if from Nana, that’s how she used to cook it. I guess you’ll have to go ask her.”

Finally, the girl went to her great grandmother hoping that she was finally going to get her answer. “Nana, why do we cut the end of the ham off every year before we put it in the pot to boil?”

Nana smiled her toothless smile and said:

“Oh girl, one Christmas many years ago we were getting ready to boil that ham and realized it was way too big to fit in the pot, so we had to cut the end off to get it to fit.”

And that’s tradition for you. Some things we hold dear to us and cherish for very specific and sentimental reasons; others we met in place and follow because it’s what we know, what’s been passed down to us through the years and as such have become sacred.

Sometimes it’s a myth or legend, passed down through the years and retold so many hundreds of times, the lines between truth and reality have become blurred and entwined. Even though the logical part of our brain tells us this simply can’t be true, a teeny part of us still wants to believe in Big Foot and the Loch Ness Monster, Atlantis, and the Bermuda Triangle. (Yes, maybe they are true!)

Finally, you may not identify with any of the above–you’re not one who is overly superstitious nor are you a traditionalist (and let’s not get you started by mentioning the word Yeti), but do you at least hold on to some favorite token or item that you figure brings you luck or good fortune? Grey’s Anatomy Doctor McDreamy wore his favorite ferryboat scrub cap while performing his surgeries. What do you use for your mojo? I know there must be something–a lucky penny perhaps or that special pencil you always use when you take your exams? Could it be that red rag you keep at the back of your sock drawer or maybe the rabbit’s foot hanging from the rearview mirror of your car? Whatever it is, I bet you that you’re not alone.

These were some of the items I discovered at DCPL while doing research for this post on the topics of myths, legends, superstitions and traditions.

Why People Believe Weird Things and The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer

Don’t Sing Before Breakfast, Don’t Sleep in the Moonlight by Lila Perl

Wisdom Tales from Around the World by Heather Forest

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