Ordinary table salt once was so precious and so scarce a commodity at one time that battles were fought to protect its sources.
An old folk belief that says it’s bad luck to spill salt and to avoid it – the bad luck that is – you must immediately, without any hesitation whatsoever, throw some over your left shoulder. I assume my mother brought this superstition over from Great Britain since I heard it many a time at the kitchen table whenever I knocked the salt shaker over.
Now I ask you, if salt was once as precious as diamonds – it was restricted solely to the ruling classes at one time – how and why did this superstition arise about throwing it away to avoid bad luck?
Anyway, this is one of many beliefs that came to North America with immigrants and you still hear it and other weird superstitions like it today. Recently, for example, a friend said he thought he could “make it safely to Halifax in a storm, knock on wood.” He actually looked around for some wood to knock on and then caught himself. “That’s what my Dad used to say,” he said.
I grew up hearing all those old superstitions and quaint beliefs. My mother must have brought a cartload of them with her from England and I heard them all, many times over. There’s the one about tea leaves, to give another example. Finish your cup of tea, turn the cup upside down on your saucer and rotate it several times. The tea leaves would form a pattern inside the cup that foretold your future, if you knew how to read them. (Tea was once steeped with loose leaves which explain how a pattern was formed.)
There were other beliefs, courtesy of a mother who was one of the most superstitious persons I ever knew. Trouble with warts, rub them with raw onion; or if they were large, tie string tightly around them and they’ll disappear or fall off overnight. Never put a coin in your mouth – this will give you canker sores. Pick up a penny when you find one and put it in your pocket; you’ll have good luck all day. Don’t pick up toads; they’ll give you warts. Break a mirror and you’ll have seven years of bad luck (which is an oldie but I heard it for the first time from my mother.)
Save the wishbone from a turkey or goose and make a wish on it. My mother always dried the wishbone on the woodstove. The wishbone is “y” shaped and after it was dry, two people could make a wish by grasping each prong of the Y and pulling until it broke. The person getting the longest piece got their wish. No umbrellas were ever opened in our house; it was bad luck if you did. Don’t step on a spider since doing so brings on a heavy rain, I was told. If your left palm itched you were sure to get money and so on. An itchy right palm meant the opposite – you were going to lose money.
You probably laughed when your read these old superstitions and beliefs, but keep in mind that at one time they were all that people had to guide everyday living. People of my mother’s generation and in earlier times took these superstitions and beliefs to heart. There were many old beliefs, for example, that forecasted the weather. You couldn’t go to the weather channel in the old days so you depended on mackerel skies, red sunsets, rings around the moon and the way smoke issued from chimneys to forecast the weather.