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Why Your Neighbor's Door Is Red And Other New England Superstitions

Old wives' tales are worth examining because, no surprise here!, we’re still plenty superstitious!

Back in the old days, there were more freaky little tricks and tics for keeping trouble at bay, as well as for crooking a coy finger at good luck, than you could shake a frog at. And while you were shaking that frog, you could rub it on your face to banish freckles. Did it work? Probably not, or we’d still be swabbing swamp crits over all our open pores.

Old wives' tales are worth examining because, no surprise here!, we’re still plenty superstitious! It’s intriguing to see if any of these folkloric tidbits might continue to come in handy.

For instance, are bushy brows on men an indication of wealth? I’m thinking we could go two ways with this one: Any man with gobs of money might be so enamored of himself, he could make braids of his nose hairs for all he cares. On the other hand, men with unruly eyebrows might be too poor to pay a barber to bring out the electric hedge-trimmer for his facial fur. It’s probably best to ignore the guy's eyebrows and check out his loafers, see if they’re Ermenegildo Zegna or some such big-buck shoe.

One superstition has gone so completely by the board that I’m wondering if it might account for the modern divorce epidemic: Those inimitably wise old wives used to advise the following for betrothed couples: Marry on Monday for health, on Tuesday for wealth, Wednesday was the best, Thursday would bring losses, Friday crosses (uh-oh, that sounds ominous) and good old Saturday, the one day all modern brides and grooms choose for their nuptials is the worst day to marry! The worst!

Yegads! Have we inadvertently doomed generations of married couples with these blighted Saturday weddings?

Some of the old boogie-woogie tips are worth trying even today. A potato in your pocket to treat rheumatism? It was meant to soak up all those microscopic rheumy goobers that roam our bodies. Why not give it a try? Just don’t slice the potato later and stick it in a casserole. Another one: People used to rub sage tea on bald heads to bring back hair. Something tells me that could really do the job, if only for the placebo effect.

Here’s a fun one: Are you the kind of clumsy ditz that falls UP the stairs all the time? Keep up the slap-stick, sport! You’re going to be rich! Also on the lucky side, if you carry dice in your pocket, you’ll always have money. Unless you use the dice for craps games in sordid back alleys.

Some weather whimsies: “Rain before seven, clear before ‘leven.” Also, “‘tween twelve and two, you can tell what the day will do.” It’s worth paying attention to see if there’s one iota of sense in this brand of forecasting.

Here’s one: “If you tell your dreams, you’ll keep on dreaming.” You’ll also lose all your friends. Listening to someone else’s dreams is what shrinks get the big bucks for.

Some superstitions give us the willies, of course, in fact they have a reputation for that. Reading gravestone graphs will make you lose your memory. So that explains it! . . . If you hear footsteps behind you, do not – I repeat – do not turn around! If you peek, certain death will follow within the year. Guess we’re all going to die, then, maybe in the next five minutes. Who doesn’t look behind at the sound of footsteps? We’ve got to know if it’s a close friend, or a person waving the wallet we dropped, or a zombie with an oozing purple head who clearly hasn’t eaten in hours.

This spooky one gave me pause: A bat in your house means someone associated with that property will die within the year. Well, back in 2009, I briefly lived in a cottage down a Chilmark hollow. The woman who dwelled there before me warned that a bat sometimes swooped around the high ceiling. I never saw it myself, but the man who owned the cottage came to dinner one evening in late September. He died of kidney failure a couple of months later.

Coincidence? You tell me or, better yet, ask the bat.

Finally, we come to the issue of red front doors. You see a lot of them on the Vineyard, usually on grey-shingled or white houses in the Greek Revival style. Nowadays red doors are just a dashing aesthetic touch; they look scrumptious against an otherwise colorless façade.  But did you know these red doors are descended from an anti-hexing tradition?

Back in Colonial times, red doors protected against the Evil Eye, meaning special attention from the Devil. This caused people to babble bad words and twist their heads all the way around. So if you preferred to limit the special FX in your life, you painted your door red, and harm from that particular quarter was averted.

One last superstition, along the same lines: you must never repeat the Lord’s Prayer backwards or you’ll summon up old Beelzebub. And all I can say to that particular caution is “Oh for heaven’s sake!” I myself could never pass that drunk-driving test of reciting the alphabet backwards, even stone-cold sober. Asking anyone but a total genius to recite anything from back to front is a waste of mental energy that would be better spent sticking potatoes in your pocket.

One last thing: A dog eating grass will bring rain. And that’s a good thing! The rain will wash away that decidedly uncute little glob of green upchuck.

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Michael West April 01, 2013 at 01:11 PM
Carry a lucky-bone from the head of a codfish, and nothing will harm you, or so they say...so help me, cod.
Holly Nadler April 01, 2013 at 06:53 PM
Good bon mot, Michael, but considering that we're both vegetarians, maybe we should find another, plant-based charm?
Louisa Hufstader (Editor) April 02, 2013 at 02:21 AM
Somehow, I don't see either of you with a cod piece.
Michael West April 02, 2013 at 11:32 AM
From the North End of Boston to Federal Hill in Providence the superstition persists that evil spirits live in fig leaves. A braguette is not a loaf of French bread, nor a young, boastful woman. I think that covers the subject without obscuring it entirely.

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