Groucho Marx once quipped, “If a black cat crosses your path, it signifies that the animal is going somewhere.” Very true indeed! But to some, having a black cat cross in front of them is enough to send them retreating to safer ground. The Deitsche have a long history of beliefs that some would see as superstitions. However, among us, these notions are really just something we’ve been raised with or heard about growing up in the Deitscherei. So you could really consider them folk-lore. Or, if we still give in to their activity, a set of collective habits found among my people.
Mr. Webster defines superstition as
a: a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation, or
b: an irrational abject attitude of mind toward the supernatural, nature, or God resulting from superstition
Ok, yes, we have a long history of belief in folk healing, known as Braucherei or Pow-Wow. And, yes, we hold a storied belief in witchcraft, known as Hexerei. (I’ll discuss the distinction between the two in a later post as that deserves its own forum.) I suppose some would see these as superstitions. But, more and more people today find themselves indulging in meditation or natural supplements or even Reiki. My personal inclination is that we have always understood that certain behaviors yield certain results and we’ve retained them. The rest of society is finally catching up!
This week’s post will provide a sampling of the folk-lore and beliefs held by the Deitsche. Some of these beliefs were brought to the colonies with our ancestors, others developed as we cultivated and acclimated to our new land. Some of these, I know are still followed, others are from a bygone time. In no way is this list exhaustive and some of the behaviors may seem unenlightened (and even down-right humorous).
No young man was considered desirable unless he had at least a horse and buggy, so he would be able to take his sweetheart to local gatherings on holidays, and church services on Sundays. Saturday evenings were considered the proper “date night;” although it would seem that many times, a “date” would extend through the entire day of Sunday as well.
This led to a unique custom. Because of the distance between homes, it would seem that our ancestors consented to a form of premarital shacking up. The custom of bundling was quite prevalent among the Deitsche. As one source describes it
for young persons between whom there is a courtship, or treaty of marriage, to lye [sic] together, the woman having her petticoats on, and the man his breeches; and afterwards, if they do not fall out, they confess the covenant at the church, in the midst of the congregation, and to the minister, who then declares the marriage legal….In Pennsylvania, however, superfluous clothing was frequently dispelled with…bundling received judicial recognition by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania…ruled that in that part of the country where the custom was known to prevail, ‘that the female being in bed with a man, or different men, was not conclusive evidence as to her want of chastity,’ and, on appeal, the decision was sustained.
A drop of blood from the little finger of the left hand in a glass of water drunk by a girl will supposedly cause said girl to fall in love with the blood donor.
If you put sugar under the armpits until it gets warm and then put it into a drink, it will act as an aphrodisiac. (I wouldn’t suggest sharing this secret if it’s successful!)
Weddings usually occurred at the minister’s home and he furnished light refreshments as well. The ceremony was attended by a very small group and, most of the time, the trip itself wasn’t even known to most. Once the bride and groom and their small group of attendants returned to the temporary or permanent future home of the newlyweds, dancing and other such festivities lasted well into the night past midnight.
Of two couples wed by the same clergy on the same day, one will be unhappy. (Make sure your officiant isn’t double booked!)
The bride would customarily furnish the household linens, bedding, etc. and the groom was expected to secure a home with a some land.
One was never to take an old broom into a new house or one could expect bad luck to follow. Additionally, the new broom was to be carried across the meadow to avert evil consequences. Additionally, to have luck in married life, a married couple should step over a broom on entering their house (and you thought that was an African-American custom!).
Many times, the young wife participated in the heavy work of farming including plowing, threshing grain, clearing fields, etc. And, it was her responsibility to gather herbs, roots, barks, and flowers that would later be used for their medicinal properties.
Cleaning and Other Domestic Chores
Saturday was the cleaning-up day of the week including the washing of pavements! There is also much written about the corresponding custom of white-washing in the Spring. This task included removal of every article from the house and spreading a white-wash over the walls, using a brush, and scrubbing the windows and floors.
If you want a cake to be light, always stir the batter in the same direction.
The Formal Living Room
It would seem that the Deitsche created this custom. It was only on Sundays – when homes would receive guests after church services – that the parlor or best room was opened up. Under normal circumstances, this room was shut off from use by the family to the extent of some even having lockable shutters on them.
How to Tell if You’re Getting Visitors
If someone drops a fork at the table, a male visitor will be arriving; drop a knife, expect a female guest.
If a rooster crows, someone is coming; if two hens start fighting, you guessed it, expect women.
If someone at your table helps themselves to more food while he still has food on his plate, your visitor will be hungry.
When a cat washes her face, you’ll be getting visitors. (This also indicates that the weather will be clearing.)
Child-Birth and Raising Children
Pregnant women were typically seen and treated by older women in the community with skill and experience in midwivery. And, in some cases, it’s known that no such assistance was available and the mother-to-be gave birth successfully alone. Deitsch women are a strong lot!
Infants were left in cradles and only taken out when occasions demanded so. However, children were allowed to nurse for a longer period than is now the usual.
Some other interesting beliefs about children include:
A child will have colic if the empty cradle is rocked.
If a child is permitted to see his reflection in a mirror before his 1st birthday, he will become arrogant.
To cut an infant’s fingernails may cause her to become a thief later in life. Also putting an old diaper (I’m assuming they’re talking about cloth diapers) on a new baby will turn the child into a thief.
When several teaspoonfuls of its own baptismal water are given to a child, it will tend to make the child smart and maybe a good singer.
A child born in January will be able to see ghosts.
Payment of the doctor’s fee in full will prevent the child from growing. (Try convincing your insurance company of that!) But be sure to pay the bill in full before the woman goes into labor or it will be a difficult birth.
To kiss a baby on the mouth before he cuts teeth will cause the child to teethe hard.
Wash a child’s face with its own urine to make her beautiful or him handsome. It may also remove freckles.
Home Remedies (of the non-medicinal kind)
There were several suggestions of running one’s finger through his toes and then smelling the finger to ease a cold, sore throat, etc.
To cure constipation, “get a chicken, nice or otherwise, kill it without shedding blood; boil it, feathers and all – make soup out of it – this when eaten, will cure constipation.” (Nope, it doesn’t matter if the chicken was nice or not!)
To cure epilepsy, swallow the heart of a rattle-snake.
To prevent headaches, one should dress by putting their right sock on first.
Want to stop hiccups? (I love this one!) Bend forward so that your hands touch the floor and say, “O hiccup, I wish that you were in my buttocks.”
To stop sneezing, look at the tip of your nose with both eyes or press your index finger hard below your nose.
If you get a sprain, or dislocation, rub it downward.
To ensure a good nights rest, place your bed so that it orients in the north-south direction.
Good Luck/Bad Luck
The Deitsche carry Himmelsbrief (Letter of Protection) much the way Catholics wear the Crucifix or Jews place a Mezuzah at the door post.
If you don’t want visitors, don’t let the dog roll on the floor.
When your left ear burns or rings, someone you know speaks bad of you; if it’s the right ear, they’re speaking good.
A large wife and a large barn bring luck to any man.
To memorize something, put the closed book under your pillow while you sleep at night; leaving the book open will cause you to forget what you have learned from it.
It is luckier to put on both socks first, then the shoes.
One should never give another a gift if she has negative emotions tied to the gift giving occasion as those emotions can attach themselves to the gift and cause trouble for the recipient (even if the emotions are unintentional). It would be better to have another provide the gift on the giver’s behalf. An example would be when an infertile woman who wants children gets invited to a baby shower; although she may be happy for the expetant couple, she will most likely still have some resentment that it isn’t her. That resentment could get transferred to the gift and subsequently bring bad luck to the child.
Many animals besides the groundhog have been used in forecasting the weather. They include the ass (the four-legged variety), beaver, bear, bull, cat, cattle, chipmunk, deer, dog, fox, squirrel, goat, horse, mole, mouse, rabbit, sheep, and wolf. And, the Deitsche use birds of all sorts as well as trees, shrubs and grasses, clouds, fog, and frost, the moon, sun and stars as well.
A cat lying on its side who turns its face upwards predicts stormy weather.
Woolly caterpillars foretell the severity of winter by its coloring. If the ends are black, the beginning and end of winter will be harsh; if the middle, likewise the middle of winter will be bad.
Thick husks on corn predict a severe winter.
A dog lying on his back indicates a change to stormy weather.
If the tops of trees are bare while the sides are still covered in the fall, the winter will be mild; if the leaves fall first from the sides of the trees, the winter will be harsh.
Death and Funerals
Upon the death of a person in a house, all the mirrors of the house were turned around to face the wall; otherwise, the first person to see their reflection was next to pass. (There’s no indication how long one would wait until the mirrors were turned right side out.)
It was customary to throw stones on graves of those who committed suicide or met a violent death or were buried in unconsecrated ground; failing to do so, would leave the passer-by in danger of meeting the spirit of the departed on his journey.
If anyone looks back during the funeral procession, there will soon be another.
Tell someone what you dreamed about before breakfast the day after the dream and it will come true.
If you dream of a funeral, it means a wedding.
Dream of milk and you will fall “violently” in love.
What you dream on the first night in a strange house will come true. Same for dreams on Friday nights.
Over the years, we Deitsche have kept what works and discarded what doesn’t as pure superstition. I know I still look for the woolly worms every Autumn!
Hoffman, W. J. Folk-Lore of the Pennsylvania Germans. Forgotten Books, 2007. Print
Aurand, A. Monroe. Popular Home Remedies and Superstitions of the Pennsylvania Germans. The Aurand Press, Lancaster, PA. Print