When You Wish Upon a Bone

Leave it to the Italians. We tend to be a superstitious lot. For proof of that, look no further than the cornicellos we like to wear around our necks.

We’re credited with inventing the wishbone (or at least, the tradition of breaking it for good luck). Ancient Romans were the first to see the wishbone as a symbol of providence. Eventually, we added the tradition of breaking it in two. This now gives us the added bonus of enjoying a competition (as well as an opportunity for destruction).

In the early days, two Latin types would snap apart a chicken wishbone while each was making a wish. The person ending up with the longer of the pieces was said to be the fortunate one—wish granted. I’ve also read, if the bone broke evenly in half, both parties would have their wishes granted. Frankly, I’ve never seen this happen; but I suppose anything’s possible.

A Bony Tradition

The Romans spread this tradition as they conquered Europe. What a great trade-off. We’ll take all your land and authority, and will give you this chicken bone to wish us away.

This bony tradition eventually arrived in the continental USA because the English bought in as well. The English-speaking Pilgrims brought it here and made the move from chicken to turkey. The rest, as they say, is history. And here we are. Thanksgiving wishes are part of us.

Interestingly enough, it was never called a “wishbone” until folks in the US coined the term in the mid-1800s. None too soon for the salad dressing company of the same name… Otherwise, their company would be called “Furcula.” It just doesn’t have the same ring to it. I suspect the folks at Kraft and Good Seasons would have one less competitor had that been the case.

All this is nonsense, of course. To think that a chicken bone could grant your every wish is a tad beyond the pale. Even a turkey bone can’t carry that much supernatural weight. Still, people are prone (even in our modernistic day and age) to practice such things—eye of newt, and all that.

If you are Jewish or a Christian, you have a pretty good idea that these things are verboten. There’s one verse in Isaiah that clearly lays it all out. The prophet said, “You, Lord, have abandoned your people, the descendants of Jacob. They are full of superstitions from the East; they practice divination like the Philistines and embrace pagan customs.” (Isaiah 2:6) Passages like this don’t seem to stop us, of course. We still wear our horns, throw salt over our shoulders, and eat sauerkraut on New Years Day. All this is done in the name of creating good fortune (or breaking bad luck).

As a preacher type, I suggest we stick to Scripture and leave the wishbones to the ancient Romans (as amusing as it can be). Just don’t be stepping on any cracks in the sidewalk. You’ll break your mother’s back, you know.

[Dave Zuchelli is a graduate of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and is currently pastor of Smith Chapel in Great Falls, VA.]

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