As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, October 17, 2021.
Pop genius Stevie 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 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.
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 a request for divine intercession helps restore cardiac function. Another: sneezing is the body’s response to an invading malevolent spirit; “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 an especially superstitious bunch. Tennis pro Rafael Nadal never steps on court lines before or after points, while Serena Williams wears the same pair of unwashed socks in tournaments as long as she keeps winning. NASCAR drivers won’t shave on race day. And Tom Brady donned the same pair of shoulder pads for 25 years, reconditioned annually, before upgrading last season. Leave it to Tom to flout superstition and still be named Super Bowl MVP.
I was sitting in the bleachers at Fenway Park on the night of Sept. 2, 2001, when Yankee pitcher Mike Mussina was 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 at Fenway 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.
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.