Superstitions in the U.S.: A Guide for Newcomers

Superstitions in the U.S.: A Guide for Newcomers

Consider Friday the 13th.

The sense of bad luck permeates your mind at the sound of this date. One may wonder how a date that occurs more or less three times a year got such a bad reputation. Many sources have suggested different origins: One theory is that the crucifixion of Jesus happened on a Friday, and the 13th guest at his Last Supper was his betrayer. Others allude to Norse mythology and suggest that this is a day steeped in catastrophe.

Wherever this superstition may have come from, it is now glued to misfortune to the point where American pop culture is peppered with horror movies and books that have adopted it as a premise. But where do Americans stand with superstition in general?

Are Americans superstitious?

A recent YouGov survey suggests that one in ten Americans admit to being superstitious to some degree. According to Dr. Stuart Vyse, author of “Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition”, more than 50% of Americans consider themselves to be superstitious.

Every culture comes with its own set of beliefs. The U.S., being the great melting pot of the planet, has a strong influx of such ideas. It is a country of the religious, but there is a difference between religion and superstition. Saying the Hail Mary or being particular about attending Sunday Mass is different than shivering at the thought of spilled salt, or, God forbid, a broken mirror.

Why American Superstitions Should Intrigue Newcomers

Studies suggest that people who believe in superstitions do so because of a need to control their surroundings. Understanding what motivates people to believe in certain things or behave in certain ways deepens your understanding of the people themselves and can help you connect with them.

This can clue you into a small aspect of life in the U.S. and the headspace of its people, especially since your own mindset may differ. It is always best to keep an open mind and learn as much as you can. There are endless available resources to give you a hand with that.

The gist of what American superstitions are like may also explain behaviors that may be different from what you know and follow. For example, saying “Rabbit, Rabbit” on the first of every month is believed to bring good luck to the chanter. This may seem like an unusual custom, but taking the time to do a little bit of reading on superstitions prevalent in North America will ensure that you’re not caught off-guard (or end up hurting anyone’s feelings) the next time you hear about it. This may save you from a potentially embarrassing or uncomfortable situation.

A short, informal study of superstitions can prove to be very interesting to read, as well. This is so because the points of origin are abundant, and many cultures overlap—and sometimes completely contradict each other. The Greeks, for example, have no qualms about Fridays and instead consider Tuesday the 13th the unlucky day. The French, on the other hand, used to consider 13 a distinctly lucky number. Who knows? You might find some intriguing correlations between American superstitions and popular beliefs of your own country.

Superstitions by the Compass

The eastern side of the U.S. houses the New England states, which have a history of superstitious inhabitants. Luck is a strong force here, and it lives in lucky pennies found on the ground, carrying a lucky charm like a bone, and four-leaf clovers. There are also cautions that may bring bad luck. Bringing a cat into a new home is ominous, but a stray animal choosing to live with you is a sign of good luck. If you often trip while climbing up the stairs, fate supposedly has something good in store for you.

You might find more new-age beliefs on the west coast. For example, one Californian superstition is that the third wave of a set is the best to surf on. Pyramid Lake in Nevada is said to be haunted by the sound of crying babies because of an alleged drowning, and it is not an auspicious place to be. Most of their omens are based on geographical spaces rather than historical beliefs.

The southern states also have their own set of ideas around events and supernatural ideas. One age-old superstition that you may see manifested in many older houses in the south is painting their front porches a color known as “haint blue” to avoid spirits. The superstitious circles in the south also take their New Year’s Day food incredibly seriously. The traditional meal includes collard greens (signifying money), black-eyed peas (signifying luck), and a pork dish (signifying prosperity).

While it would be almost impossible to pen down beliefs taken seriously in every state of the U.S., ample resources are available for you to study up and broaden your horizons on the subject.

The Most Common American Superstitions

These are some of the most common superstitions among Americans:

  • Breaking a Mirror: Many Americans believe that breaking a mirror is inauspicious. According to the superstition, if you break a mirror, you won’t get married for the next seven years, the next seven years will bring nothing but bad luck for you, or someone in your household will die before the year passes.
  • Superstitions Related to Death: If you hear a dog bark, an owl hoot, or a shutter close, it may be an omen for an upcoming death in the family. Some variations of this superstition also consider a dog barking three times and coyotes howling in the mountains to be unlucky.
  • Superstitions Related to Marriage: Like all cultures, America has its own array of superstitions about marriage.
    • This little rhyme tells how a bride should dress to bring good luck in marriage.

    • “Married in yellow, love your fellow;
      Married in green, trouble foreseen;
      Married in red; disaster ahead;
      Married in blue, your love will be true.”

    • The number of times you have to blow on your birthday cake to blow out all the candles will be the number of years you have to wait before you get married.
    • If a bride trips while walking down the aisle, it foretells a disastrous marriage.

There’s more:

  • Knocking on wood can save you from jinxing yourself, and also can bring you good luck.
  • Bad things and inauspicious news come in groups of three.
  • Pull on either side of a wishbone while making a wish. The wish of whoever gets the bigger side will come true. This is mostly a dinnertime ritual.
  • Finding a four-leaf clover is a sign of good luck.
  • 666 is an unlucky number (and has devilish connotations).

As Neil Gaiman pointed out in his book “American Gods”, every group that immigrated to America brought with it new religious beliefs, rituals, and superstitions. Therefore, the list of American superstitions is long. If you’re about to move to the U.S. or have recently moved, you’ll enjoy knowing about the superstitions common to the states. Consume the information with a hearty sprinkle of salt, though.

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