Superstitions are folk beliefs, convictions or suspicions that certain behaviors will have good or bad consequences — even though most of us realize, rationally, that there’s no conceivable cause-and-effect relationship involved.
Does a black cat crossing our path really mean bad luck is coming our way? Are we headed for trouble if we sit in the 13th row at the theatre or take an apartment on the 13th floor (if the building even has one)? Probably not. But many of us would say “Why take a chance?”
Some superstitions, like the ones about black cats and the number 13, are widespread and well-known. Others are specific to one particular culture or nation or part of the country. Consider, for instance, these popular superstitions from each state — from lucky pennies to Hawaii rocks.
A great many superstitions attach to something that’s a part of everybody’s daily life: food. In Ireland, these often have to do with not angering the fairies or not invoking evil spirits. In China, they may involve symbolic representations of death, to be avoided at all costs. (Here are 22 Chinese New Year’s don’ts — unless you want a year of bad luck.)
Not all superstitions involve bad things. Eat a grape for every stroke of the clock at midnight on New Year’s Eve in Spain, for instance, and you’ll prosper all year. Take the last piece of food on a plate in Thailand and you’ll end up with a good-looking mate.
24/7 Tempo has assembled a list of 25 of the strangest food superstitions from around the world, promising both bad and good results.
Never cut noodles
> Origin: China
Noodles, typically eight to 10 inches in length, symbolize long life, so cutting them suggests cutting life short.
Don’t place chopsticks vertically in rice
> Origin: China and Japan
There’s a tradition of sticking chopsticks upright in rice at funerals, which diners would rather not be reminded of at other times. (There’s also a theory that upright chopsticks look like incense sticks, also associated with funerals.)
Always serve at least two bowls of rice
> Origin: Vietnam
A single bowl of rice is often put out as an offering for the dead, so at least two should be on every table among the living.
Always serve an odd (or even) number of courses
> Origin: China
There are two competing superstitions here: According to one, because odd numbers cannot be divided evenly, they represent strength. Thus wedding feasts, for instance, typically include seven or nine courses (though never five, which is the number served at funeral banquets). Some sources, though, maintain that an even number is preferable, perhaps precisely because five are served at funerals. That even number should never be four, however, as the Chinese words for “four” and “death” sound alike.
Put fish scales under your Christmas dinner plate
> Origin: Czech Republic
Fish scales under dinner plates (or under the tablecloth) at Christmas dinner — or carried in your wallet year-round — foretell wealth in the coming year. This is probably because the shiny scales are thought to look a little like silver coins.
Don’t bring bananas on a boat
> Origin: England
Harry Belafonte may have sung “The Banana Boat Song (Day-O),” but old-time sailors wouldn’t have let a banana near their craft. The superstition appears to stem from the fact that ships carrying bananas from the Caribbean to Spain in the 18th century were often lost at sea.
Don’t slaughter a pig on shipboard
> Origin: Caribbean
In ancient times, the pig was considered the heraldic animal of the Earth Goddess, who controlled the winds. Killing a pig on a ship would summon up a terrible storm — and even saying the word “pig” could result in strong gales.
Don’t spill the salt
> Origin: Ancient Mesopotamia
Some sources associate the idea that spilling salt is bad luck with the image of an overturned salt cellar in front of Judas Iscariot in Leonardo Da Vinci’s masterpiece “The Last Supper.” However, historians have traced the notion back to the Sumerians of southern Mesopotamia (circa 4100-1750 B.C.), though their reasoning isn’t known. The good news is that any bad luck threatened by spilled salt can ostensibly be held off by the act of throwing a pinch of salt over your left shoulder.
Don’t drop tortillas on the floor
> Origin: Mexico
No one seems to know exactly where this notion originated, but it is commonly said in Mexico that if you drop a tortilla on the floor, you’ll soon have a lot of visitors. According to some, instead of just random drop-ins, tortilla-dropping means your in-laws will soon arrive.
Don’t spill your wine
> Origin: Italy
Maybe it’s just because it’s a shame to waste good wine, but the Ancient Romans believed that knocking over a glass of vino was an omen of impending disaster. The idea has persisted in modern Italy, where spilled wine means bad luck — unless you immediately dab a few drops behind each ear, which to keep misfortune at bay.
Never toast with a glass of water
> Origin: Numerous cultures
Toasting with water is thought to bring bad luck, and may even foretell death, in many countries. The superstition may date back to the Ancient Greeks, who believed that the dead drank water from the River Lethe in the Underworld. In addition, an old seafaring tradition holds that toasting with water will lead to death by drowning. Apparently this is believed even in the U.S. Navy.
Eat 12 grapes on New Year’s Eve
> Origin: Spain
The Spanish tradition of “las doce uvas de la suerte.” or the 12 grapes of luck, means popping one grape into your mouth with every stroke of the clock at midnight on Dec. 31 to insure good fortune in the year to come. The belief dates from the 19th century, but got a boost from a p.r. campaign by grape growers in Spain’s Alicante region in 1909, when a particularly good harvest left them with too many grapes to turn into wine.
Eat 12 round fruits on New Year’s Eve
> Origin: The Philippines
Perhaps because not as many grapes grow in the Philippines as do in Spain, the Asian nation — ruled by the Spanish between 1565 and 1898 — has amended the tradition to encompass any round fruit. That doesn’t mean consuming a dozen apples or oranges. With small fruits, like grapes, cherries, or loquats, the whole thing may be popped into the mouth, but with larger ones, it’s considered sufficient to just take a bite and pass the fruit along.
Don’t eat asymmetrical food if you’re pregnant
> Origin: Korea
If you are what you eat, chances are that the baby you’re carrying will be what you eat, too. That’s why consuming asymmetrical food items (a misshapen strawberry, for instance) will result in an ugly infant being born, according to this superstition.
Apple seeds reveal how many children you’ll have
> Origin: American South
In Kentucky and elsewhere in the South in the 19th century, it was sometimes said that counting the seeds in an apple you’re eating will reveal how many children you’ll have (which generally means at least five but could add up to twice that or more). Apples are associated with a number of superstitious beliefs, often involving fairies or the devil.
If you’re a child who wants to travel, eat chicken wings
> Origin: Indonesia
Presumably because wings suggest flight (even though chickens don’t actually fly very much), Indonesian children are advised to eat plenty of them if they hope to make a trip abroad.
Cut a cross into bread loaves before baking
> Origin: Ireland
A loaf of authentic Irish soda bread will likely have a cross cut into the top, to let the evil spirits out (or to prevent Satan from sitting on it) as the bread bakes. Like apples, bread is attached to many superstitions. The Scots say that it’s bad luck to cut into a loaf while another one is baking, for instance, and a hole in the middle of a loaf is thought to suggest a coffin, and thus death.
Don’t take the last slice of bread
> Origin: Ireland
Whoever takes the last piece of bread on the table will lead a solitary life, some people say in Ireland. The superstition often specifies that if a woman is the culprit, she’ll never find a husband.
Always try to take the last piece of food
> Origin: Thailand
An Irishman or -woman in Thailand might get a little confused, because in that Asian nation it’s considered good luck to take the last piece of food on a platter when you’re sharing a meal with others. Some say it means you’ll end up with a particularly good-looking mate.
Toss rice at newlyweds for good luck
> Origin: Ancient Celtic lands
The pre-Christian Celts didn’t actually toss rice at weddings — it wasn’t widely available in Northern Europe until the latter 1700s — but they tossed other grains, like barley and millet, representing abundance and fertility. The tradition was later amended to rice in many parts of the world because it was more readily available. Wedding guests are sometimes advised not to throw rice because birds eat it off the ground and it swells in their stomachs and can kill them. The fact-checking site Snopes has dispelled this rumor as nonsense.
Carry garlic to avoid the evil eye
> Origin: Greece
We all know that garlic can ward off vampires, but according to Greek superstition, it’s also useful against the Evil Eye — a malevolent stare that can bring bad luck to the person stared at. Garlands of garlic hanging over doorways aren’t there for culinary purposes: They’re to keep out those nasty glares.
Never curse or quarrel while churning butter
> Origin: Ireland
Not a lot of people churn their own butter anymore, but back when that was the only way to get it, there was an element of mystery attached to the process. Sometimes, no matter how long somebody churned, the milk wouldn’t solidify. This led to a number of superstitions around churning. Most involved the fairies or evil spirits interrupting the transformation, and it was thought that cursing or quarreling might summon them up.
Don’t sniff basil leaves
> Origin: Greece
An old Greek superstition held that if you sniff basil leaves too closely, a scorpion will grow inside your brain. On the other hand, in other parts of Europe, basil was used to fulfil a function similar to that of garlic: keeping evil spirits away.
Don’t chew gum after sunset
> Origin: Turkey
A Turkish legend says that once it gets dark out, gum turns into the flesh of the dead, which doesn’t sound like a very good thing to chew. A similar belief exists in Hungary.
Don’t sing at the dinner table
> Origin: The Netherlands
Besides the fact that it’s rude to other guests, singing at the dinner table is said in the Netherlands to imply that you’re singing for your supper to the devil. A related belief is that table-singers will end up with a crazy or otherwise undesirable spouse, perhaps because their lack of manners suggests that more desirable potential mates won’t like them.
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