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Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Very Superstitious

When my sister and I, along with our friends, showed up at my cousin Mitzi's house in Hungary with no warning, she was completely unfazed. "I knew I was going to have company. I hit my left elbow earlier today. I was just waiting for someone to show up." Superstitions are funny that way. A simple bump of the elbow, and some relatives arrive unannounced from over five thousand miles away. It may have worked for Mitzi, but so far, it hasn't worked for me. I'll keep hoping, though. Or try to be more careful with my elbows.

Gram was a wealth of superstitions, mostly from her Irish/English background. Strangely, though, some of them were very Asian. For example, Gram always said that it was very unlucky to kill a cricket that found its way into the house. Almost every fall, there was a cricket in my bedroom, serenading me to sleep. I never tried to hurt one, although I did relocate a few to the back yard. Like many people in China, Gram was happy to have them inside the house because they were supposed to bring good luck. Which is why, on a chilly spring morning, I woke up because I felt something tickling my arm. Yes, there was a cricket in my bed. He had found the warmest spot in the room to settle down for the night. I got a good laugh out of it, and so did Gram. After she confirmed that I did not kill the cricket!

Another Chinese superstition that Gram had revolved around New Year's Day. Most of her practices related to the celebration were Irish in origin, but one was very Chinese. The one thing you could never do on New Year's Day was to sweep anything out the door or take out any garbage. This would be equivalent to throwing away your good luck. Her other rituals for the day were very Irish. If you were awake at midnight, you drank a sip of water before indulging in a tot of good whiskey. Also, after the last person who might be out for the evening arrived home, as the head of the household, she would hide a little bit of money outside the front door. Before anyone left the house that day, she would bring in the coins and distribute them to the members of the family. It was lucky money, not to be spent, but kept to ensure good fortune for the coming year. Although there were foods that one was supposed to eat for good luck and fortune, the most important was the first bite of food for the day. It had to be something sweet, preferably cake, to ensure sweetness in the coming year.

I did tell Gram more than once that I thought a lot of superstitions were created by mothers to encourage better behavior from their kids. Think about it for a few minutes and maybe you will agree. One of her long-standing beliefs was that shoes on a table were bad luck, as were hats on the bed. What better way to discourage your kids from laying down in their beds fully clothed? Make it unlucky! And how do you keep them from putting their big feet on the coffee table? Ditto. Make certain items unlucky, and you end the behaviors that result in those items being where you don't want them. Aha! There was another unusual bad-luck behavior that grew to make sense to me. Some people, she said, thought it was bad luck to cut a baby's fingernails with something sharp during their first year, so the mothers bit them off instead. The more babies I know, the more practical this seems. The way babies fling their hands around makes it hard to trim their nails without cutting their tiny fingers. So maybe it is unlucky to cut their nails!

There were numerous others as well. Never cut your hair or fingernails on a Sunday. Never come in one door and out the other. In other words, if you came in the front door, you needed to exit the same way. It was unlucky to take a first look at a New Moon through glass. If you were walking with someone and walked on opposite sides of a pole or column you had to say bread and butter to prevent a fight. If you gave someone a purse or wallet you had to put a coin inside to ensure that their purse would always be full of money. And if someone gave you something sharp, like a knife or scissors, you had to give them a coin to pay for it so that it wouldn't cut your friendship. Proving that much like her numerous sayings, Gram had a superstition suitable for almost every occasion!