Believe it or not, superstitions endure

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In anticipation of Halloween, a re-post of my Op-Ed piece from the Providence Sunday Journal last October.

Pop genius Steve Wonder’s “Superstition” topped the Billboard Hot 100 on Jan. 27, 1973. That’s not surprising. The song’s funky groove and exuberant horns are irresistible. Wonder’s lyrics hook us too, tapping into our semiconscious fascination with the supernatural.

In the chorus, Wonder sings that “superstition ain’t the way,” and he’s surely right. Yet, superstitious practices endure — whether we believe in them or not.

Wonder’s song endures, as well. Forty years after reaching pop’s highest perch, it was featured in a series of TV ads for Bud Light. The spots celebrated the bizarre game-day superstitions of National Football League fans, concluding with the wonderful tag line, “It’s only weird if it doesn’t work.”

Merriam-Webster defines superstition as “a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation.”

Have you ever knocked on wood to ward off bad luck? One theory says this common practice is rooted in the pagan belief that good spirits live in trees. By rapping on wood, you summon the help of the good spirit within.

Do you avoid walking under ladders? If so, you are being influenced by an early Christian belief that the triangle formed by a leaning ladder represents the Holy Trinity. When you walk under the ladder, you break the Trinity and invite the devil in.

Many of us say “God bless you” when someone sneezes. That connects the person doing the blessing to several superstitions. One is that the heart stops beating during a sneeze and my request for divine intercession helps restore cardiac function. Another: sneezing is the body’s response to an invading malevolent spirit; my “God bless you” serves as a shield against the invisible demon.

In Rome during the plague of 590 AD, Pope Gregory I commanded people to say “God bless you” to anyone who sneezed, as sneezing was believed to be an early sign of infection. While the plague eventually abated, the custom of saying “God bless you” prevails to this day.

Athletes are notoriously superstitious. Detroit Tiger pitching ace Justin Verlander once ate Taco Bell religiously on nights before his starts. But after he had an off year in 2013, “Live mas” was no more.

I love to watch Rafael Nadal play tennis. His attack on the ball (and his opponents) is relentless. But Nadal may be more entertaining in between his virtuosic volleys. Among his legendary superstitions: in changeovers, he points the logos on his water bottles toward the side of the court he will be playing on; he never steps on court lines before or after points; and when he does cross a line, he always proceeds with his right foot first.

I was sitting in the bleachers at Fenway Park on the night of Sept. 2, 2001, when Yankee pitcher Mike Mussina was literally one strike away from a perfect game. I may have crossed my fingers, hoping to witness history — only 16 perfect games had been pitched to date. And then Carl Everett hit a bloop single. Someone must have violated baseball’s most sacrosanct superstition: never mention a no-hitter or perfect game while it is in progress.

Superstition twists the wishes that we extend to stage performers. We tell them to “break a leg” because, the story goes, saying “good luck” will bring them just the opposite.

Many cultures consider the number 13 to be bad luck. Some cite the betrayer Judas as the 13th guest at the Last Supper; others note the traditional 13 steps to a hangman’s gallows.

I can’t prove that pessimistic associations with the number 13 are justified, but I do have this: As a junior in high school, I wore number 13 on my away-game basketball jersey. Our team had a so-so year. I switched to number 30 the following season and we went 19 and 4. Sure, we had a better squad. But I wasn’t taking any chances.

In 1921, my maternal grandparents got married on superstition’s high holiday — Halloween. Their union spawned an extended Italian family, into whose lively and loving embrace I entered almost 40 years later. I was the 12th of Vincent and Etta’s 13 grandchildren.

I would tell you how happy and successful the 13th grandchild is, but I don’t want to jinx my younger brother.

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