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
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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Update: June 2012