Friday, May 13, 2016

Salt and Pennies and Friday Thirteenth

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Friday the Thirteenth! A day for thrills and chills and mystery, naturally. Unlike last year, when the Gregorian calendar had no less than three Friday the Thirteenths, today is the only one of 2016. The best Friday the Thirteenths are in the spooky month of October, of course, but even a sunny day in May will give some people pause. To quote Wikipedia, "According to the Stress Management Center and Phobia Institute in Asheville, North Carolina, an estimated 17 to 21 million people in the United States are affected by a fear of this day, making it the most feared day and date in history. Some people are so paralyzed by fear that they avoid their normal routines in doing business, taking flights or even getting out of bed." Fear of this date has it's own name: triskaidekaphobia.

I've never worried about Friday the thirteenth, or black cats, or broken mirrors (except for the dangerous glass!) But I do find myself adhering to a few superstitions. When I spill salt, I throw some over my shoulder. I'll go out of my way to avoid circling widdershins (counter-clockwise.) I only use the term "The Scottish Play" in theaters and I never wish anyone good luck before a performance! I always say "I love you" to my children before hanging up the phone, and when I make my family dinner, I make a cross in or over the food and say a quick blessing.

Okay, maybe I am superstitious. How about you, Reds? Are you avoiding potential accidents today? What are your superstitions?

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Yeah, this is a tough one. I throw salt, definitely. I don't put hats on beds, or shoes on tables. I also don't put shoes on beds or hats on tables because I can never remember which it is. I don't pick up coins when they are face down. I kind of avoid walking under ladders.  Definitely with you, Julia, on the "good luck" thing, and the play.  I say "knock on wood" to avoid jinxing things.  (And, now, as I list these, I am horribly embarrassed.)

JULIA: I'm thinking no shoes on the table is just good hygiene.

HANK: Jonathan is completely un-superstitious. Not one thing. He's totally baffled at my little rituals.

My stepfather, too, would absolutely SNEER. Except once, he saw someone put a hat on a bad. He snatched it away, aghast.
 I said "Hey! You insisted you weren't superstitious!
And he said: "It's s not a superstition. One simply doesn't put hats on beds."
Oh, okay then.

Funny, though, although Friday the 13th crosses my mind, it doesn't scare me. Knock on wood.

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: So funny you should bring this up, Julia, because the Kiddo is doing a scene from "The Scottish Play" this spring (playing MacDuff) and we had to go through the whole "you don't say the name of 'The Scottish Play" in the theater (unless you're on stage and it's in your line). There's a great Blackadder spoof called "Don't Mention Macbeth" that we showed him, which I think made more sense than the two of us prattling on about it. Really funny.

I have a lot of friends who are ballet dancers, modern dancers, opera singers, and choreographers — and it's always "merde" (yes, it means in French what you think it does—it's what they say—seriously) or "toi toi toi."

In puppetry, I always say to Noel and friends, "Break a rod." (Rods are the little sticks that hold up puppets' hands.)

JULIA: Susan, that's wonderful.

SUSAN: Other than that I'm not superstitious at all — and adore black cats (which are often very dark brown when you see their fur in direct sunlight).

HALLIE EPHRON: My mother was superstitious. Threw spilled salt over her shoulder (can't remember if it was right or left); if you dropped a knife it meant a man was coming; open an umbrella in the house is bad luck; break a mirror eight years bad luck. And of course they were in the theater so I knew to say "Break a leg."

I'm not superstitious, though I do "knock wood" and I "find a penny pick it up, and all the day you'll have good luck."

LUCY BURDETTE: Absolutely yes to throwing salt, not opening umbrellas in the house, and knocking wood. And I would never, ever walk under a ladder. I am devastated when mirrors are broken. But I love Friday the 13th and especially, like Susan, love black cats. I think it was you, Hank, who persuaded me one year not to pick up pennies or other coins--just say "find a penny" and then leave it for someone else who needs it more. And that fits nicely into my germ suspiciousness...

HANK:Yes, Lucy, that's what I do!  I love to think of someone else picking it up. And if it is wrong side up, I turn it so they will.

RHYS BOWEN:  I grew up surrounded by elderly aunts who had so many superstitions: drop a knife = a gentleman visitor. A fork = a lady a spoon = a disappointment.
Red sky at night, shepherd's delight. Red sky in the morning, shepherd's warning. The only one that stuck with me is to say RABBITS on the first of the month on waking. I still find myself muttering this , even though I know it's stupid. And I have thrown a coin in the Trevi Fountain in Rome.  And I do pick up pins... See a pin and pick it up, all the day you'll have good luck.

I have taken flights on Friday 13th and then I have been aware of little noises on take-off. Otherwise I don't even think about it.

DEBORAH CROMBIE: I have never in my life thrown salt over my shoulder. I don't worry about ladders, or pennies (although I, too, have thrown one in the Trevi Fountain) or putting hats on beds. I'd never even heard of that!! And I like black cats--I've had several. I guess I grew up in a very boring and rational family... I do knock on wood, though!

Rhys, I have friends who post "Rabbit, rabbit," on Facebook, and I never had any idea why. Thanks for getting me up to speed!)

JULIA: I had no idea about the Rabbit thing! I just remembered another one of mine: telling fortunes by counting crows. "One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl and four for a boy, five for silver, six for gold, seven for a secret never told."

How about you, dear readers? Do you pick up pennies? Throw salt? What are your superstitions?


  1. Sometimes I wonder where these superstitions came from . . . but I definitely throw salt over my shoulder, don’t walk under ladders, and cringe if the mirror breaks. We never open umbrellas in the house, I always do the “knock on wood” thing, but black cats don’t bother me in the least.
    The hat on the bed thing is new to me, though, as is the whole “rabbit” thing.
    I do always pick up coins. When we were children, we were told that lost coins on the ground were angel kisses. If you picked up the coin and it was heads up, it was yours to keep, sent to you by your guardian angel. But if it was heads down, you had to give it away because your angel had entrusted you to share the kiss with someone who needs it at that moment. I always check and always give the upside down ones away . . . .

  2. I never knew about the heads up coin thing. Like Debs I guess I grew up in a too-rational household, not many superstitions in my family. I pick up pennies because of luck and because I'm a thrifty Scot - hey, a hundred pennies add up to a dollar... I still don't walk under ladders if I can help it, and even though my mother died three years ago, I can't brink myself to step on a crack in the sidewalk - "Step on a crack, break your mother's back."

    I also can't walk on grates in the sidewalk, but that's more a phobia than a superstition - I'm never sure they'll hold and I might fall through. Not a problem where I live, but when I walk around cities with friends (like at mystery conferences), I'm always veering around the grates and getting odd looks!

  3. Huh? That previous comment was from me, Edith. Not Unknown!

  4. Joan, that's so sweet about "angel kisses"! Never heard that one before! And Edith, I hate walking on the grates, too -- also for fear of falling through....

  5. I don't mind grates, but the dog won't walk on one LOL! On the Rabbit, rabbit thing, I had a friend who said you must say "tibbar, tibbar" if it's April 1...

  6. Oh and I think you can also say tibbar tibbar if you forget to say rabbit rabbit as the first thing you say. Cornelia Read told me that. So it must be true.

  7. Chuckling this morning at the funny superstitions we all have. It isn't rational, right? I wonder why we buy into them, maybe as a failsafe? I do "touch wood", and knock on my own noggin at the same time, just in case.

    My mother was born on Friday the 13th, in 1930. She was a twin, weighing only three pounds. Her twin brother didn't make it, but my mom, despite her diminutive size, has the strength of a lion, and now she's 86 and the oldest living member of her huge family. So Friday the 13th has never been scary to our family. My mother surviving such incredibly long odds made sure of that.

    By the way, my father was also an opposite-sex fraternal twin whose sister was born dead. He never knew, though, until Mother was pregnant with me. And yes, I lived in fear all three times I was pregnant that I would have twins, too!

  8. For some reason, I associate being superstitious with being Irish. Probably from that grandmother you Reds keep reminding me of. Knock on wood, but modeling Nanna's sense of humor, I knock on my own head. Like Rhys, dropping utensils means someone unexpected is going to show up. If it's a spoon, it's a child. Never, ever, put up a new calendar before the time has arrived or you'll curse the entire year. I won't get into broken mirrors, walking under ladders, or black cats. It's exhausting!

    I'll tell you how my husband and I tackled our Irish heritage filled with silly superstitions. We purposely chose Friday, May 13th as our wedding day. We figured after failed first marriages, why not? While we've definitely had our ups and downs, we're celebrating our 39th anniversary today.

  9. I walked to school for 12 years, saying under my breath, "Step on a crack and break your mother's back. Step in a hole and break her sugar bowl" It works people. My mother died in 2005 with an intact back and a whole bowl. So don't dismiss what others call superstition. You can't make this merde up. It's REAL.

  10. Happy anniversary, Michele! I like your spirit!

  11. Karen, that gave me chills. Feels like the start of a novel...

    My husband and I often take walks in our local cemetery, Victorian vintage built like a park. Is there a superstition about walking on people graves, because it feels like there should be.

  12. I don't really think I'm superstitious. Broken mirrors? Like Julia, I'm more afraid of getting cut on a shard of glass. I don't walk under ladders - because I'm afraid of them falling on me. I'll say, "knock on wood-product," but I feel more facetious than superstitious. Black cats and Friday the 13th? Doesn't phase me. Throw salt? But then I have to vacuum it!

    Never heard of hats on beds, or "rabbit, rabbit."

    I'd probably throw a coin in the Trevi fountain because...isn't that what you do in Rome? But pick up a coin off the street? Only if it's a quarter!

  13. Ann - I think you're right! I did the same thing, and my mother is hale, healthy and unbroken! It works!

    Michele, I love your anniversary date of Friday the 13th! I think there's always a bit of a reverse charm for superstitions: either they're unlucky OR very lucky. Obviously, yours was the latter! Has your anniversary ever fallen on a Friday since your wedding?

  14. What a fun post! I have few superstitions, although it drives me crazy that my husband will buy new shoes and put the box on the table (with the shoes in it). My mother, on the other hand, was full of superstitions, which probably explains why I am pretty cavalier about them. Rhys, thank you for reminding me what the spoon meant. I have tried to remember that for years!

  15. Thanks, Karen! And yes, Julia, after 39 years, we've had a number of Friday the 13th anniversaries. This one is feeling very special as we are moving to Cape Cod today and starting a whole new chapter. I think our motto should be, "Bring it on!"

  16. Hallie, Karen's story sounds like it should be one of your books!

    I realized that when I was a kid I did try to avoid cracks in the sidewalk. My mom lived to 92, back intact, so Ann is right. It works!

    And Michelle, Happy Anniversary!! Ours is tomorrow!

  17. Red sky at night isn't a superstition. To quote Wikipedia, "The rhyme is a rule of thumb used for weather forecasting during the past two millennia. It is based on the reddish glow of the morning or evening sky, caused by haze or clouds related to storms in the region.If the morning skies are red, it is because clear skies over the horizon to the east permit the sun to light the undersides of moisture-bearing clouds. The saying assumes that more such clouds are coming in from the west. Conversely, in order to see red clouds in the evening, sunlight must have a clear path from the west, so therefore the prevailing westerly wind must be bringing clear skies."

  18. My mother used to throw spilled salt over her shoulder, and I knock on wood, but we have a black cat. It's clear some are superstitious about black cats because I volunteer at the Humane Society, and we always have more black cats to adopt than any other color. We even have to run specials on black cats around Halloween.

    My embarrassing moment, however, was in a See's Candy store. I was getting a bag of candy, and the total price came up $6.66. I hastily asked the sales clerk to add a piece of candy so the price wouldn't be the "mark of the beast"! I've never forgotten that.

  19. I'm like most of the rest here. I don't have too many superstitions, but I always knock on wood to avoid jinxing something, and I often pick up a penny for good luck. Only ever say "break a leg" to an actor. Other than those three, though, I can't think of any that stuck.

    The whole thread about the red sky is interesting. Thanks, PlumGaga, for the insight into its meaning. The way I grew up hearing it wasn't "shepherds warning" as Rhys knows it, but "sailors take warning." I guess both shepherds and sailors are vulnerable to changes in the weather, so they both make equal sense.

    I have never understood the aversion to black cats. And I hear from people at shelters, it applies to black dogs, too -- they are the least likely to be adopted. I think in both cats and dogs, the black ones are often the most beautiful!

  20. I am reminded of my college anthropology class as I read about different superstitions.


  21. I'm afraid I am totally nonsuperstitious. I've heard of all these rituals but never took them to heart. I've always loved the 13th since it was my Grandpa's birthday. Now I've heard when you set a hat down, put it crown-first, not brim-first. That way it will hold your good luck (and not misshape the brim, per husband.)We also did the step on a crack chant. However being a very contrary child I probably leaped on cracks when angry at Mom. Didn't hurt her; she's going strong at 96. I have a bottle tree in my side yard. It is supposed to drive evil spirits away, but it is a nice repository for wine bottles. I consider it art; my husband disagrees. Mutters something about trailer trash. We also had the ceilings of our porches painted a light blue. That is also supposed to repel evil spirits, but we heard it also will discourage wasps, etc from making nests. The jury is still out on that one. Happy Friday the 13th! Oh. And I am my neighbor's date for the Senior Prom this evening. The kids at the elementary school have a dance for when they leave the school for middle school and grandparents and proxies (like me) are invited as their dates. I was his older brother's date too. Party on!

  22. As a former farmer and continuing weather geek, "Red sky in morning, sailors take warning; red sky at night, sailors's delight," is a very good predictor of weather for the reasons PlumGaga described. Knocking on wood? Not so sure!

  23. I'm going to sound Pollyanna here, but optimist that I am, I tend to engage in more good luck gestures than superstitious, protect-me-from-trouble stuff.

    I wish upon stars. I toss coins into fountains with the hope good things will happen. And my beloved was born on a Friday the 13th (today is her birthday!)so I consider it a very lucky day indeed.

  24. I love this post about superstitions. I just saw a meme that said, "I'm not superstitious, only a little stitious." That aptly describes me, as there are some superstitions that have stayed with me since growing up and some that I decided were ones I'd let go of.

    Friday the 13th is always a good day in my mind, as my father was born on Friday the 13th, and well, that means I was born, too. And, he was a successful business man who was healthy up until a couple of years before he died at age 96, so I'd say it was a lucky day for him. I like that I've made a positive out of something negative. It oddly gives me a sense of accomplishment to have overcome the gloom of this day. I also have discarded the black cats as bad luck idea. This dismissal was mostly due to the fact that if there is a black cat nearby, it will find me, and I really couldn't deal with that meaning bad luck every time, so I guess black cats just like me. Another one that I grew up with, but I never cared for was that it is bad luck to sing at the table. That was one my father adhered to, and I'm now suspicious that maybe he just didn't want his four children all making noise by singing. I now wholeheartedly endorse singing at the table. Singing in bed was also a no-no, and I admit that I am still a bit torn about this one. I do it, but I do so with some trepidation.

    Other superstitions that I grew up with that are not too gloomy are that if your nose is itching, someone is coming to visit and if your ears are red or hot, someone is talking about you (I do think that one had a negative connotation). Oh, there was that one about stepping on a crack and breaking your mother's back, which, while pretty gloomy, didn't ever make much sense to me with all the cracks around.

    Superstitions that I endorse and do pay attention to are the following: 1) spilling salt and taking a pinch to throw over your shoulder to avoid bad luck 2) not telling a bad dream upon waking until you've eaten something or the dream will come true 3) not walking under a ladder to avoid bad luck 4) not splitting the pole when you're walking with someone, or you and that person will have a spat before bedtime 5)knocking on wood to avoid something coming true is one I occasionally pay attention to 6)opening an umbrella inside will bring bad luck, but I'm almost over that one 7) having a price come up with three sixes (Margie, I've added something to bring the price up, too). Now, when I say that I adhere to these superstitions, it doesn't mean that I would have a melt-down over them. I suspect it's as much a habit as anything, well except the salt and bad dream and, oh my.

    My grown children (and now my granddaughters are catching on) take great delight in my spilling salt and throwing it over my shoulder superstition. They will deliberately spill salt to torment me and see me pinch the salt and throw. Yes, it is high entertainment in their minds. The children also are not very respectful of the splitting the pole superstition. To explain a bit further, if you are walking along with someone and there is a pole or other dividing obstacle in your path, you should both go around it on the same side or you will argue before bedtime. I mean, really, who wants to have an argument? Hahaha!

  25. One that I failed to mention above is the worst, gloomiest superstition of all. My mother was most adamant about this one. If a bird gets in your house, there will be a death in the family. Of course, this would be a wild bird, not a pet bird. The day my daughter told me that she was pregnant with our now six-year-old granddaughter, I came home and a cardinal got in the house. I was frantic about it, and my son and his friend were able to get it out. I finally was able to calm myself down by realizing that it was a cardinal and cardinals are indicative of loved ones who have passed on paying you a visit. I then determined that it must have been my father-in-law's spirit wanting to share in the wonderful news. Yes, I am probably certifiably crazy.

  26. If my memory doesn't fail me, the street number of Ronald and Nancy Reagan's ranch was 666.

    I always thought that was interesting, considering Nancy's predilection for the woowoo.

  27. It's been fun to read about all these superstitions! I'm not the least bit superstitious, having been raised in a non-superstitious family.

    A college roommate introduced some of us to "rabbit rabbit", but I don't think it was a superstition, just a silly thing to do to mark the first day of the month.

    Deb Romano