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Childhood Customs and Superstitions
Nature Bulletin No. 627   February 4, 1961
Forest Preserve District of Cook County 
Daniel Ryan, President
Roberts Mann, Conservation Editor
David H. Thompson, Senior Naturalist

CHILDHOOD CUSTOMS AND SUPERSTITIONS
In all the world there remains only one large tribe of savages which shows no signs of dying out or becoming civilized. These people have a language of their own; they practice magic; and they follow weird customs which have come down by word of mouth from the far-off past. Actually they are only part-time savages because, most of the time, these are our sons and daughters or our grandchildren who go to school, live in our homes, wash behind their ears, and seem to be civilized. The strangest thing about them is their ability to shift personalities right in front of your eyes.

Youngsters live in a world of their own, half real and half imaginary, from which adults are excluded It would be interesting to know whether our grandchildren have any of the superstitions about plants and animals that we had. Perhaps, in these days when natural science is taught in the elementary school grades and illustrated by superb movies, they do not. We only half believed or pretended to believe in them ourselves.

In those days, beliefs were one thing and facts were another but they conflicted. For example, a night crawler shouldn't die when it was cut in half -- you got two worms. When both died that must have been an accident. If you played hooky from school and took a nap near a pond, one of those big green dragonflies -- "the devil's darning needles" -- would sew your eyelids shut. On a farm, at sundown, if you picked up a "grand-daddy-long-legs" by one leg and chanted a question, he should point toward where the cows were. Usually the other seven legs waved wildly in all directions, so you listened for the belled cow.

We had a lot of absurd snakelore. Snakes and turtles, even if their heads were chopped off in the morning, would not die until sundown. Snakes charmed birds with their evil unwinking eyes and their forked tongues were venomous. A mother snake, when her little ones were in danger, opened her mouth and they ran down her throat. A hair snake, actually a worm parasite from the gut of a grasshopper, came from a horsehair that had fallen into water. There was a hoop snake that would put its tail in its mouth and roll down a hill. If it hit a tree, the stinger on the end of its tail would kill the tree.

Most kids had one or more warts on their hands and we believed that they came from handling toads. To get rid of warts, we rubbed them with a grasshopper's "tobacco spit"; or milkweed juice or earwax; or a dirty dishrag and then buried the rag. Huckleberry Finn used the "stump water" that collects in old stumps. In the Ozark mountains, a curious man found 125 "cures" for warts.

A lot of childlore had to do with wishes and still does. Mothers save the wishbone of a chicken or a turkey so that two youngsters can grasp the ends, make wishes, and break it -- the one having the longer piece gets his or her wish. If two playmates happen to say an identical word or phrase simultaneously, they solemnly extend their right hands, hook the little fingers, and press the thumbs together as each makes a wish.

We used to "stamp" for white horses and mules by licking the right thumb, pressing it into the palm of the left hand, and smacking that palm with the right fist -- once for a horse and four times for a white mule. When you had stamped 100 times you got your wish as soon as you saw a red-headed woman.

Some people complain that children are different nowadays. It is they who have changed. Modern children, out of sight and on their own, have customs and are storing up memories just as lively as any that we older folks have. Tempus fidgets.


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