cultural differences 9: superstitions

Maybe I should have made this subject post # 13. I think Americans and Germans both consider that number unlucky.

Some people consider Germans highly superstitious, but I don’t think that’s true. Many Germans I know avoid doing certain things that are supposed to bring bad luck just out of habit — or maybe just in case :-)

In Germany, it’s considered bad luck:

If a black cat crosses your path from left to right. If the cat walks from right to left, you don’t need to worry (at least, that’s the way I have learned it, but I have heard other people say that it’s the other way around). Personally, I think crossing a black cat’s path in any direction is only bad luck if you’re a mouse :-)

Breaking a mirror means seven years of bad luck.

Walking under a ladder brings bad luck – not just for security reasons. Ladder, wall, and floor form a triangle, which was thought to be sacred, so ducking beneath a ladder means you’re violating that sacred space.

Congratulating someone before the actual birthday or jubilation brings bad luck. It’s not done in Germany.

If you get up with your left foot first, you’ll have bad luck (or be in a bad mood) all day.

Washing clothes (especially bed clothes) in the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day (called “between the years”) brings bad luck or even death to the household. Ghosts were thought to roam the earth on these nights, and if you hung your washing out on the line to dry, the ghosts would get caught in the clotheslines.

It’s considered good luck in Germany:

If you find a four-leaf clover, it’s a good omen.

Finding a one-cent coin brings good luck (especially if you spit on it).

Touching a chimney sweep will bring good luck too. Probably because cleaning the chimney prevents the house from burning down.

It’s tradition to bring salt and bread to a housewarming party. It means the hosts will never suffer hunger in their new home.

Broken pieces of china and ceramics bring good luck (but breaking glass brings bad luck!) On the eve of a wedding, there’s the tradition of “Polterabend.” Friends and family members break plates, mugs, sometimes even sinks and toilets.

Seeing a shooting star (“Sternschnuppe”) is supposed to bring good luck.

Horseshoes bring good luck – but if you hang it upside down, luck will fall out.

To wish someone luck or success, you are “pressing your thumb” (basically wrapping your fingers around the thumb of the same hand) in Germany, not crossing your fingers.

So, what kind of superstitions are common where you live?

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7 thoughts on “cultural differences 9: superstitions”

  1. Yikes! I’m quite certain I’ve congratulated you before an actual jubilation. Oops!

    I experienced the salt & pepper tradition at a recent housewarming party in Los Angeles. The guest was German.

    I found a shiny cent on the road during one of my first AIDS/LifeCycle training rides, so I declared it as my lucky cent and now carry it in my bike seat bag.

    Here’s my own (admittedly, insane) superstition: before something important is about to take place, I call my best friend and ask her to wish me luck, in two languages, and in a specific order.

    • Sounds like much more than a superstition. I think it’s a nice tradition to call your best friend.

      Do you want to add a third language? Three is considered a lucky number in the US and in Germany, after all. So maybe have your friend add “Viel Glück” :-)

  2. I must basically be of familial German ancestry, because the list of good and bad luck you listed pretty much covers it.

    Here’s a good luck one:

    Always give a new wallet or purse with a coin already inside. It will assure that the receiver never is broke.

    And here’s a bad luck one I didn’t see in your list:

    It’s probably an extension of the not wishing someone happy birthday before the day, but in my family we did not buy anything for a new baby until the baby was actually here. I’ve actually witnessed the “fallout” from doing it early, more than once. The most devastating was a family friend who had purchased everything for twins… and one of the babies was born stillborn. Devastating.

    Most I did before my son was born was getting a crib… from a family friend, no money changed hands. But then I only had 48 days to prepare for being a mother. While I was in the hospital after the birth, my extended family brought over all the stuff needed from their houses, so when I came home with my son, it was all set up.

    • Lara,

      wow, there really must be a few Germans in your family tree. The thing with the wallet is a superstition in Germany too, just not as common as the others I described.

      And some people say if you rock a cradle before the baby is born, the baby will later cry all the time.

  3. There’s one superstition that I found only in Cyprus: you are not allowed to lay a loaf of bread upside-down. Don’t ask me why. All the people I asked, couldn’t explain to me why not to. I guess, it has some religious background, for Cypriots as a nation are very religious.

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