Monday, June 23, 2008

Old wives' tales

By Shirley Damsgaard

I spent a goodly part of my childhood on a farm, in Iowa, and everyone around me seemed old! My mother had been nearing forty when I was born, all my aunts and uncles were in their fifties and sixties, and my grandfather was over eighty. (Of course now that I’m of that “certain age”, my views on getting older have changed, but back then, everyone seemed ancient!)

Now what does one have to do with another? Well, because my entire family were farmers and had grown up in a different era than all my little friends’ relations, people in my family appeared to know “stuff” that my friends’ parents didn’t. They knew if the underside of the leaves on a tree were showing, rain was on the way. They knew when the cattle and horses grew heavy coats, fall was coming to an end and it would be an early winter. They knew that one hundred days after a fog, you’d have rain. My elders had spent their youth in a world without central heating, telephones, and before the coming of the rural electric cooperatives, electricity. They didn’t have the weather man telling them when a storm front was moving in, or if snow was expected. And because their livelihood was tied to the land, they paid attention to signs and The Farmer’s Almanac. Yes, folks, I’m talking old wives’ tales, and my family had hundreds of them!!! And most of them seemed to deal with luck, and/or, the weather.

Here are some of my favorites:
Opening an umbrella in the house is bad luck.
If you wean calves in the dark of the moon, they won’t bawl for their mamas.
Never put a hat on a bed.
If your ears burn, someone’s talking about you…if you nose itches, you’ll kiss a fool.
Never light three cigarettes with the same match.
Spilling salt is bad luck and to remove it, you must toss a pinch over your left shoulder.
If it rains on Easter Sunday, it will rain the next seven Sundays in a row.
Carrying a buckeye brings good luck.
Goosebumps mean someone just walked over your grave. (Honestly, as a child—that one never made a lot of sense to me. After all, how could someone step on your grave if you weren’t dead yet??)
It’s bad luck to walk under a ladder.
Potatoes must be planted on Good Friday.

And last, but not least, my favorite and one I truly believe in:
People act strange around the time of a full moon.

Oh, I forgot one. When I was pregnant with my oldest son, I decided to make sauerkraut.(Looking back now—I don’t know why I did it, but it must’ve seemed like a good idea at the time!) I think I put up about thirty jars of the stuff. The next day, I called my mother and proudly related my accomplishment to her. Unfortunately her response was “You know they won’t seal.”

“What?” I replied, thinking of all that hard work going to waste. “Why not?”

“You’re pregnant,” she said, “sauerkraut doesn’t seal for pregnant women.”

Now what the seals on Mason jars had to do with bouncing hormones was beyond me, and I was getting this advice from a woman who thought talking to her houseplants made them grow, but I didn’t argue. A few months later, I discovered that yes, indeed, the seals on at least half the jars had failed! Pregnant or not, I never made sauerkraut again!

So what are some of your favorite old wives’ tales?

Be the first to email Shirley c/o Joanna’s email at and we’ll mail you a magnet with Old Wives’ Tales on them.

Shirley is the author of the Ophelia and Abby Mystery Series. Her new book The Witch’s Grave is scheduled for release December 2008. Visit her at


Camille Minichino said...

Far from the farm, the tales were different.
For example, if my father saw the same number twice in a day — say, lunch cost $2.67 and he had a job at #267 Beach Street — that was a sign to call his bookie and put a dime on that number!

Linda O. Johnston said...

Some of those old wives' tales have origins in reality, I think--like 3 on a match in a war situation would let the enemy see where you are. Of course I'm too wise and sophisticated to believe in any of them--knock on wood!

Kathryn Lilley said...

I think I made this one up for DYING TO BE THIN, although it should be an old (Irish) wives' tale, IMHO: When you spill your beer while making a toast, you invite the Devil to your table.

Gramma said...

Ah! Don't sit on the ground during a month with an "R" in it.
Never put shoes on a table-that is bad luck.
Don't let a black cat cross your path.
I think those were Gramma's "big" worries!

Betty Hechtman said...

Does not wearing white shoes after labor day count as an old wives tale? I can't imagine evil would befall you if you did.

NitaK said...

My GrandMa always said that if it thunders in February, it will frost in April.