The Bones You Break & The Luck You Make

Thanksgiving in my household involves a lot of food, a lot of football, and a lot of tryptophan-induced naps. However, somewhere between pie and nap #3, I usually stand in the kitchen with a piece of turkey bone in my hand and make a wish. Yeah, the wishbone. While I loved this little tradition when I was 10, all I could think this year as I broke a turkey cartilage in half was why? Why do families all around the world feel as if this is some good luck charm? Why do I have to make a wish? How is this ethical? Isn’t it enough that we ate the turkey, do we really have to break its collarbone now, too?

Apparently, the tradition of breaking the wishbone has been around for centuries. People used to believe that fowls predicted the future, and the collarbone was considered the most sacred. Villagers would pass the bone around like a hot potato and wish upon its majestic-ness. When the Pilgrims arrived in America there were no chickens to be found, so they figured that turkeys would have to do. Eventually, people decided “hey, let’s break the thing!” and so two lucky people got together to play tug-of-war with a chicken bone. Whoever had the longest side won, and therefore, their wish (as long as they never spoke it out loud, of course) came true. Hence, this silly little tradition which takes place in thousands of households across America.

I get that people are superstitious, and I can kind-of see why chickens and turkeys are considered spectacular, all-knowing beings. They lay eggs and squawk and stuff. That’s pretty cool. What I don’t understand though is why people decided to break the magical bone in half. Isn’t extracting the thing out of the turkey like you extract the broken heart out of the game Operation enough? It’s not just Thanksgiving Day wishbones, either. We break a lot of things in the name of good luck. Plates, glass…legs.

Speaking of which, nobody quite knows where the superstitious phrase “break a leg” came from. In Ancient Greece, people would stomp their feet to show appreciation, and those who were the most enthused would break a leg if they stomped long enough. Similarly, people in Elizabethan times would bang their chairs on the ground and, if they were very excited and/or very strong, the leg of the chair would break off. There’s even a theory dating back to the Lincoln assassination because there’s always a conspiracy surrounding John Wilkes Booth. However, according to the always reliable Wikipedia, this speculation is “popular, but false.” “Break a leg” could be Yiddish, it could be Polish, or it could date back to a Shakespearean actor who broke his leg during a rousing performance of Richard III. Nobody really knows. Somewhere along the way it got picked up by superstitious actors and actress and now, it’s become a tradition. So here we are, wishing “break a leg” to people without actually understanding what it means.

These traditions have become so ingrained in our culture that it seems silly not to practice them. However, look at the origins. We willingly participate in these mindless little rituals without ever knowing why. Isn’t that ridiculous? They started just for fun and now they have evolved to be so important to the way we behave. Yet, half of these traditions aren’t even true anymore, but we still believe in their superstitious ways. These rituals are a part of history, but if anything, history is always encouraging us to evolve and change.

Breaking things is fun. Making wishes is great. Good luck is more than welcome. But like The Dark Knight taught us, you make your own luck in this world. Don’t put stock in a little bone that was always meant to be pulled out of a chicken. A plate, some glass, and a collar bone won’t make your dreams come true. Only you can. That’s what these traditions are for. They’re to encourage us to wish, but instead of putting our faith in useless rituals when things go wrong, we should be putting faith in ourselves. We can’t hide behind some knick-knacks and expect everything to go right. It’s a fun custom, and it doesn’t hurt to wish on a couple of stars or shout “break a leg” at your fellow thespians. So use these little traditions, break all the (turkey) bones you want, but in order for them to come true, you have to get out there and believe in yourself.

Image credited to Kate Ter Haar via Flickr Creative Commons

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