Cemeteries, Mirrors and Black Cats, Oh My!

A Look Into the Origins of Halloween and Southern Superstitions

 | By

It is hard to imagine Halloween without haunted houses, dance parties, annual chocolate binges and a night full of ghostbusters and unicorns. It seems like a harmless celebration but the beginning of this unofficial holiday is a bit sinister. Halloween originated 2,000 years ago with the Celtic Festival of Samhain to celebrate the end of harvest season and the beginning of the “darker half” of the year. In the area that is now Ireland, the Celtics believed that on October 31st, the day before their New Year, was when the boundary between the living and the dead was the weakest; this allowed spirits to travel through to the other side on All Hallows Eve. People at the festival would dress like evil spirits to avoid contact and blend in with real ones. Bonfires roared, bones of butchered livestock were tossed in the flames and food was prepared for the living… and the dead. Irish traditions carried to America during the mass immigration in the 19th century.

The South is also known for peculiar customs and rituals that most likely come from Celtic ancestry. Irish immigrants settled in many southern states and their culture spread throughout the country. Like warding off evil spirits during the Festival of Samhain, superstitions grow more popular around Halloween. Whether it is dressing up in costumes or lifting up your feet when passing over a railroad, all superstitions seem to have a consequence with a bad omen. Here are 15 of the most bizarre southern superstitions:

Hold Your Breath When Passing a Cemetery

If you do not hold your breath while passing a graveyard, you will get sick and die. This superstition is thought to date back to people associating bad smells to disease, and with disease comes death. A century ago, people did not know the cause of certain diseases, so the twisted reason behind this tale is that you hold your breath because you could catch a disease from people buried in the cemetery.

Umbrella IllustrationThe Fear of Friday the 13th

This day brings bad luck so you should stay home and avoid the number 13 whenever possible. The number symbolizes death in many societies for different reasons ranging from Judas, the betrayer of Jesus, being the 13th guest at the Last Supper to the day Friday and number 13 being unlucky, so the combination of the two is deadly. So watch out on October 13th, 2017!

A Black Cat Crosses Your Path

If a black cat crosses in front of you, go back where you came from, or you will have bad luck. This superstition originated from the Middle Ages when people were paranoid of witches. Black cats were thought to be companions of witches or even witches in disguise. People also thought when a black cat crosses your path it was an indication of black magic and meant the devil was watching you.

Knock on Wood

After talking about something unlucky, knock on wood three times to ward off evil spirits from making it come true. In ancient pagan times, spirits or deities were believed to live in trees. By touching wood, you are acknowledging them and calling on them for protection. The number three is recognized as a lucky number because there are three traditional phases of life: birth, marriage and death.

Don’t Be Salty

If you spill salt you must toss a pinch out over your shoulder. Leonardo da Vinci’s famous “Last Supper” painting shows Judas knocking over a salt shaker. Judas betrayed Jesus; therefore he brings treachery and lies. Once you throw salt over your shoulder it is supposed to blind the devil waiting behind you.

Death Comes in Threes

If someone you know passes, then two more will follow. The number three comes back into play leaning on the shape of a triangle. The triangle is meant to be sacred and once it is broken misfortune will happen.

Don’t Rock an Empty Rocking Chair

Rocking an empty rocking chair will invite evil spirits into your home and cause death, but a rocking chair that rocks itself may already have a spirit in it. If you rock an empty chair by accident, immediately say “bread n’ butter” to undo it. The rocking chair is said to be looking for someone to take a seat and will take whoever is close by.

Haint Blue

This superstition is from Creoles that believe if you paint your porch haint blue, spirits will not be able to enter. Creole folks are firm believers in spirits and they believe they cannot cross water, so they believe the color blue will ward off evil.

Eat Your Hog Jowl

New Year’s Eve carries multiple superstitions, but this one is the most prevalent in the South. Three essential foods you should eat on New Year’s Day: pork, greens and black-eyed peas. During the Civil War it is said that black-eyed peas saved people from starving. The pork addition comes from a pig’s behavior. Pigs are known to forage the ground with their snouts in a forward motion, and people believe eating pork on New Year’s Day will allow one to move forward in the upcoming year. And if you eat your greens it means you will not worry about money.

Bottle Tree

Having a bottle tree in your front yard will capture evil spirits and not allow them inside. This superstition originates from Africa and was brought over during the slave era. Africans are very superstitious and believed you could capture a bad soul in a bottle and throw it in the river, and the bottles eventually came to be put in trees. You can still see bottle trees all over the South.

Don’t Split a Pole

If you are walking down the street, stay on the same side of the pole as the people beside you or you will have a bad argument with someone you love. Do not fear, if you accidentally split a pole you know what to say…..bread n’ butter!

Don’t Break a Mirror

Everyone knows breaking a floor or hanging mirror will give you seven years of bad luck, but where it comes from is a little strange. A mirror is thought to represent one’s soul, and when the mirror is damaged, so is your soul. In ancient times, people believed it took seven years for your soul to renew. It is also known if you gather the pieces and submerge them into a stream running south, grind the mirror down to shards or immediately spin around counter-clockwise three times it reverses the effects to only seven hours.

Hang a Horseshoe

If you hang a horseshoe in a downward position above your door, then you will have good luck. This tale dates back to a blacksmith that was asked to fit a man for horseshoes. Once the blacksmith figured out this man was the devil, he nailed a horseshoe to his hoof. In agonizing pain, the devil begs him to take it out saying he will never enter a place with a horseshoe above the door.

Forgo the Ladder

Do not walk under a ladder or you will have bad luck. This superstition comes from Christians believing triangles are sacred, representing the holy trinity. Some believe it is blasphemy if you walk under a ladder. It is also said that ladders were associated with gallows, and walking under one was considered ill luck. If you walk under a ladder unintentionally, spit on your shoe three times and do not look at it until it dries.

Skip the Crack

Don’t break your mother’s back! Stepping on cracks is meant to lead to bad fortune. Cracks were once thought to lead to the underworld, and, if you stepped on them, you would release demons into the world.

These superstitions rely on the traditions of the Celtics and their actions to ward off evil spirits during times where lines were blurred between the world of the living and the world of the dead. Although some superstitions seem silly, southerners are known to take them more seriously than others. This might stem from more spirituality in the south, leading to more belief in the supernatural. Like family traditions, superstitions are passed down from older generations, and their meanings get construed. Halloween is a great example of how something dark became a day that children love to celebrate. Kids have no idea they are dressing up for something that warded off evil spirits long ago. This contradiction can be looked at as something positive. Long ago people feared this time of year, believing their crops were going to be destroyed and the devil was taking away the sun. The tables have turned in the past 2,000 years. Today people celebrate with decorations, parties and treats. A new, scary superstition that has come to popularity is saying ‘pumpkin spiced latte’ three times fast in front of a mirror and girl in UGG boots will appear. For her to disappear, tell her leggings just went on sale at Victoria’s Secret. Cheers!