When I wrote my poem ‘Make a Wish’ last week, it got me thinking about the different traditions of wish making, and I thought it might be interesting to look at a few of those, including where they happen and their origins, if known.
Wishing Trees can be found in many parts of the world. In Turkey the custom is to tie rags or scarves around the branches of a specific tree (one singled out for this purpose) and make a wish. Scotland also has this practice. Temples in Japan can sometimes have wish trees, usually bamboo – you write your wish on a scrap of paper and hang that from the tree. In the UK felled trees can be found which have coins hammered into them. This dates back to the 1700s, and the practice was believed to heal sickness. Native Americans had a similar practice, usually using a Ponderosa pine. They would hang ribbons and gifts from the branches. If nothing else, the result would always look beautiful.
Wishing wells, common in many cultures, are of very ancient origin. Sources of clean water, such as springs, were very valuable to ancient people, and as such were considered sacred. Celtic and Germanic people were known to have made sacrifices in bodies of water, casting valuable items (and occasionally sacrificial victims) in. The practice evolved over time to a token donation of a small item of little value, such as a coin. Coins, buttons, beads and pottery have been found in a sacred well at Carrawburgh in the UK dating to the fifth century, so it’s clearly an old practice. However it has continued to this day, as many people throw coins into wells and fountains all over the world, and make a wish.
Wishing on a ‘wishbone’ apparently originated with the Etruscans. Originally, when a chicken was slaughtered, they would take out the wishbone and dry it in the sun. Passersby could then pick up the wishbone and hold it while making a wish. It evolved into wishbone-breaking when the Romans inherited the idea. The English, who (along with the rest of Europe) inherited this and other Roman traditions, and took it with them to America, where the turkey provided a bigger wishbone to use.
Here’s one I have never heard of – wishing on an eyelash. This has British origins, and can be traced back to the nineteenth century (though could be older). The idea is that if you lose an eyelash (naturally – pulling it out doesn’t count), you place the eyelash on the back of your hand, make a wish, and then throw it over your shoulder. If the lash leaves your hand, your wish will come true. Other variations include blowing on the eyelash, putting it on the end of your nose, and so on.
“Star light, star bright
First star I see tonight
I wish I may, I wish I might
Have the wish I wish tonight.”
I am very familiar with this one, because I did it all the time when I was a kid. The idea is that when night falls, you make a wish on the first star you see. You recite the rhyme, and make your wish. (I don’t believe any of my wishes came true, though I don’t now recall what I used to wish for.) The earliest citation for the rhyme is the nineteenth century, but general folklore from many countries would suggest wishing on or praying to the stars dates back to ancient times.
Connected to this is the tradition of wishing on a shooting star, a much trickier proposition as they are harder to spot. This tradition is first recorded in the second century AD by the astronomer Ptolemy, who believed that the gods would sometimes look at the earth and let a star slip and fall. You should make a wish at this time because the Gods would be more favourable to answering your prayer.
You can make a wish while crossing a bridge, apparently. Depending on who you ask, you need to keep silent the whole way across, or hold your breath the whole way across. I couldn’t find any specific information about this, and I certainly hadn’t heard of it before. A variation of this is making a wish while passing through a tunnel. Again, you must hold your breath. So you had best choose a short bridge or tunnel, I suppose.
Dandelions are found all over the world and have a lot of uses for food and medicine. When they seed, they develop a round ‘puffball’ of seeds, that will be blown by the wind to new locations. If you pick one of these seeded dandelions, you can make a wish and then blow to scatter the seeds. The plants are so old and so widespread that there is no hint of the origin of this particular belief. It’s fun, though.
Rainbows are beautiful, and also another chance to make a wish. Apparently, when you see a rainbow, draw a small cross on the ground, and make a wish. I can’t find any origin information for this one either. If there is a full moon on the night before your birthday you can make a wish and get a full year of good luck. The same site I found this on also said you can make a wish while visiting a zoo, but only if you walk through the entrance backwards, and exit backwards as well. Of course, you’d have to put up with the staff and other visitors thinking you were bonkers. I can find no other information about this either, and I’m a bit suspicious about whether this one is genuine.
So anyway, these are some of the customs of making wishes I found on a journey around the internet. The sites I visited I have listed below. Feel free to add any extra information if you know it, or any other wishing customs, in the comments. Make a wish!