7 Lucky Superstitions (and Their Weird Origins)

Many people cross their fingers or pick up pennies. But do you know why?

1
Why Do We Cross Our Fingers for Luck?

Image of a woman crossing her fingers for luck.
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Nobody is exactly sure where the idea of crossing our fingers for luck comes from, but there are two compelling theories, one pagan and one Christian.

According to How I Found Out, the pagan explanation for why we cross our fingers stems from the belief that spirits could be found at crossings. The idea was that, by simulating a crossing with one's fingers, a good spirit could be invoked to help make a wish come true.

Another theory is that, when one person made a wish, another would lay a finger across theirs to provide support and strengthen the chances the wish would come true by forming a cross sign, a powerful symbol even pre-Christianity.

The Christian theory of how crossing fingers got started is that, during the early days of Christianity, the Romans attempted to suppress the religion.

To avoid persecution, Christians would use secret signs to express themselves and to communicate with one another. One of these may have involved making a cross with their fingers, especially when they prayed for help or luck.

It's interesting that people also cross their fingers when they're lying -- perhaps hoping for luck in not being caught, or forgiveness from God for the lie.

2
Why Do We Knock on Wood?

Image of a person knocking on wood.
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Have you ever wished for something to happen, and then knocked on wood so that you wouldn't jinx your luck? Have you ever stopped to think about why you do that?

The origins of knocking on wood for luck (or, as some areas prefer to say, touching wood) are controversial. The most common explanation, as described on TouchWoodforLuck.com.au, is that the superstition comes from the pagan belief that spirits lived in trees. So knocking on wood would beseech friendly spirits for help, or thank them for their assistance.

As with many superstitions, there is also a Christian explanation: that the wood represents the Cross, so when you touch or knock on wood, you are asking God to help your luck.

Although that explanation for the superstition sounds logical, TodayIFoundOut.com casts doubt on it. Why? According to their research, the earliest documented use of knocking on wood/touching wood comes from the late 1800s (for touching wood) and 1905 (for knocking on it).

Around that time in Britain, there was a popular children's game called "Tiggy-touch-wood," where you were "safe" from the other children chasing you when you touched a piece of wood. Could the whole concept of knocking on wood for luck really be that simple and that recent?

3
Why Do We Carry a Lucky Rabbit's Foot?

Image of a lucky rabbit's foot.
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Do you know anyone who carries a rabbit's foot on a key chain? Maybe you even have a rabbit's foot yourself. How strange. Why should a bunny's feet be lucky, anyway?

Well, first of all, the bunny. Celtic lore held that rabbits, in general, were lucky since they lived below ground and thus could communicate more easily with the gods. 

Perhaps this is why the Roman queen Boudicca was said to have released a rabbit on the field before a battle, to predict how well the fight would go.

Furthermore, even in more modern times, rabbits were popular among people who were trying to have a child, due to their (in)famous fertility. Women who wanted to conceive would often carry a rabbit charm.

Somehow, the idea of a rabbit being lucky seems to have been taken up by practitioners of Hoodoo in the American South. That's probably where the practice of using a foot came about.

Perversely, the less auspicious the method of getting a rabbit's foot was, the luckier the charm was thought to be. That's why a foot from the less-favorable left side of the rabbit, would be considered luckier than a right-foot charm.

And the more bad luck went into catching the rabbit, the better. For example, TodayIFoundOut.com quotes an ad for a rabbit charm whose comically inauspicious origin would make it particularly lucky:

“…the left hind foot of a rabbit killed in a country churchyard at midnight, during the dark of the moon, on Friday the 13th of the month, by a cross-eyed, left handed, red-headed, bow-legged Negro riding a white horse.”

Today, many rabbit's foot charms are actually made of faux-fur and plastic. Better for the bunnies and for our consciousnesses. And even if they don't have inauspicious circumstances surrounding their origins, if they make you feel more positive and motivated, they'll still have a good effect on your luck.

4
Why Do We Get a Wish When We Blow Out Birthday Candles?

Image of a girl blowing out birthday candles.
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Hang on, don't blow out those candles! You haven't made your wish yet!

That's something I heard over and over as a kid, but it's kind of weird, isn't it? It's nice to get a wish on your birthday, sure, but what do candles on a cake have to do with luck?

The tradition of putting candles on cakes probably started with the ancient Greeks, who would bake round cakes and top them with candles when they wanted to ask the moon goddess, Artemis, for her favor.

Furthermore, many people believed that the lingering smoke above the candle carries wishes to the gods as it rises into the air.

From these beliefs came the modern-day tradition of making a wish and trying to extinguish all the candles on a birthday cake in one breath. If you manage to do it, your wish will come true, and you'll have good luck in the year ahead.

But be careful: sharing your wish or leaving some candles lit can bring bad luck instead!

5
Why Do We Hang a Horseshoe for Luck?

Image of a lucky horseshoe.
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Horseshoes have been used as a symbol on coins, banners, and more for thousands of years... unsurprisingly, considering how important they were to travel, commerce, and war. But how did the tradition of hanging a horseshoe on a wall or over a door come about?

Many trace the superstition back to a story about a farrier named Dunstan, before he became Archbishop of Canterbury in 959 AD.

The legend goes that Dunstan was shoeing a horse when the devil came along. The devil thought that he could also travel farther and more comfortably if he wore shoes on his cloven hooves.

Dunstan agreed to shoe the devil, but he played a trick on him and put the nails too close to the quick.

The devil was in agony, but Dunstan would only agree to remove the painful shoes when the devil swore that he wouldn't enter a home protected by a horseshoe over the door.

Some legends say that when you enter under a horseshoe, you must leave by the same door, or you'll take the home's luck with you.

Others say that the horseshoe must be nailed to the wall with the points facing upwards so that all of the luck doesn't drain out.

Other horseshoe-related superstitions say that if you sleep with a horseshoe under your pillow on New Year's Eve, you'll have good luck throughout the coming year, or that if you dream of a horseshoe, it means that good luck is on the way.

Bonus Fact: Did you know that the story of Dunstan shoeing the devil was referenced in A Christmas Carol? Here's the quote:

Foggier yet, and colder! Piercing, searching, biting cold. If the good Saint Dunstan had but nipped the Evil Spirit's nose with a touch of such weather as that, instead of using his familiar weapons, then indeed he would have roared to lusty purpose.

6
Why Does Breaking a Wishbone Bring Good Luck?

Image of a wishbone about to be broken.
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It's a pretty weird custom when you think about it: before eating a chicken or a turkey, people cut out the wishbone, maybe let it dry for a while, and then two or more people pull it apart. The person who ends up with the biggest piece of the wishbone gets a wish. Where on earth is the logic in that?

It turns out that breaking a wishbone is a thousands-of-years-old tradition that dates back to the Etruscans, an Italian empire that was conquered by the Romans hundreds of years before Christ was born.

That's a long time for any tradition involving poultry if you ask me!

The Etruscans used chickens to predict the future (by watching how they ate their grain if you can believe it). They also believed that the collarbone of the chicken was sacred, and when a bird was slaughtered, they would leave the collarbone... now known as the wishbone... to dry in the sun.

People would then keep the collarbones for luck, and make wishes upon them.

When the Romans conquered the Etruscans, they maintained this tradition. According to MentalFloss.com, they started breaking the wishbone due to a shortage of sacred chicken collarbones; by breaking them, more people would have a chance to get luck from the wishbone.

As the Romans moved throughout Europe, the tradition spread. And when settlers moved to America they maintained the tradition with the native turkeys.

Bonus fact: popular phrases like "give me a break," "lucky break," and "bad break" come from the tradition of breaking the wishbone, according to AAEPA:com.

7
Why Do We Pick Up Pennies to Have Good Luck?

Image of a businesswoman picking up a lucky penny.
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Just about every child knows the chant, "Find a penny, pick it up, and all that day, you'll have good luck." But why a penny? Wouldn't a $20 bill be even luckier?

Not necessarily. According to Wisegeek, the luck of a penny doesn't com from its value, but because of its shiny metal.

Long ago, when metal was much more scarce than it is today, people believed that finding it was a gift from the gods, which would protect the finder against bad luck.

By the way, the belief that metal could bring good luck might be part of the reason why horseshoes are also considered lucky, as mentioned above.

Some people say that finding a penny with the tail-side up is actually bad luck. Others say that the luck only comes to you if you give the penny to someone else.

In Ireland, some people say that if you spit on a penny and throw it into the bushes, fairies or leprechauns will take it as payment for good luck.

Some people also talk about a "super lucky penny," which is when the date stamped on a penny you find on the street matches your year of birth.

Whether you think pennies bring good luck, bad luck, or something in between, one thing is incontrovertible: at the very least, picking up a penny makes you $0.01 richer. That's not bad for the effort of reaching down to the ground and picking it up.

Want to Know More about Being Lucky?

There is scientific evidence to support the idea that people aren't just "born lucky." Instead, your actions and your attitude can turn your luck around. Click the link above.