20 Traditional Gift-Giving Superstitions

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The holiday season is a time for giving, but one thing you really don’t want to give is the gift of bad luck. To guard against any gift-related mishaps, take heed of the following 20 old-fashioned gift-giving superstitions. (We’ve included some tips for lucky gift-giving, too.)

1. KNIVES AND SCISSORS

kitchen knives and scissors
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Giving anything sharp, such as a knife or scissors, is bad luck, as it’s thought to sever the relationship. However, the damage can be mitigated if the receiver gives something small, like a coin, in return, to make the exchange a transaction. Some folklorists err on the side of caution and also recommend repeating the rhyme: “If you love me, as I love you, no knife can cut our love in two.”

2. HANKIES

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Some gift-giving superstitions are quite literal—giving a handkerchief is said to signify tears to come. In Sweden, a man is never supposed to give his lover a silk handkerchief, or she will wipe away her affection for him. Soap is also supposed to be an unlucky gift, as it will wash your friendship away.

3. OPALS

Opal
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Opals are considered one of the most unlucky gemstones, and so should be avoided as a gift unless the receiver was born in October (the birthstone month for opal), in which case its negative vibes will be reversed. Never set an opal in an engagement ring, as it portends early widowhood.

4. SHOES

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Giving someone a new pair of shoes is unlucky, although strangely it is also said to prolong their life. It is very bad luck to gives shoes as a Christmas present, as it is thought to signify that the receiver will walk away from you. However, if you never give anyone a gift of shoes, it means that you will be doomed to go shoeless in the afterlife. Tough choice.

5. CATS

Porcelain cat figure and leaf
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In Sicily, it’s said you should never give a gift in the shape of a cat to someone who is engaged to be married, as this foretells sudden and violent death. However, in other cultures, if your partner gives you an actual cat as a present it means you will never be parted.

6. PORTRAITS

Two visitors look at Marten and Oopjen, two Rembrandt portraits of a wedding couple
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Bad news for ego-maniacs and narcissists: Receiving a present with your own likeness on it is bad luck, and to receive a portrait of yourself is a sign of treachery.

7. GIVING A GIFT BACK

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It is unlucky to give a gift and then afterwards take it back again. An old rhyme warns: “Give a thing and take it back, Old Nick will give your head a crack.” Another says: “Give a thing and take again, And you shall ride in hell’s wain.” (Wain is a word for a wagon or cart.)

8. COAL

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In old English tradition it is lucky to put a lump of coal among the Christmas presents in the stocking. The recipient should then spit on it, throw it into the fire and make a wish as it burns, and that wish will come true.

9. BAD LUCK COLORS

Red book
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The color of a gift can be significant. Giving or receiving black items is said to always be bad luck, as the color black brings death with it. You’re also never supposed to give a book with a red cover, as it is sure to break a friendship, because red is the color of anger and misunderstanding.

10. ROSES

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In the Victorian era, roses were an especially popular gift between lovers, as they were associated with secret passions. Different colored roses imparted different meanings—for example a red rose was given to show passion, and white roses to symbolize purity. It was important not to give a rose of the "wrong" color.

11. EMERALDS

emerald ring on green satin
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Emeralds were traditionally thought to be found in the nests of griffins (a mythological creature that’s part-lion and part-eagle), and to give the bearer protection from evil. Giving an emerald confers luck, happiness, and success—unless it is given on a Monday, in which case the luck is lost. If a man gives his lover an emerald as a gift, it can also be used to divine the strength of their love. If the emerald grows paler in color, then their love is decreasing, but if the emerald becomes a deeper green, it means love is flourishing.

12. FLOWERS

Florist preparing flowers
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Giving flowers is always a lovely gift, but if you are gifted cut flowers, never say thank you—it’s bad luck. Giving white lilac to a sick person is especially unlucky and does not bode well for their recovery. However, if you give yellow flowers, you can shortly expect to receive a gift of some money.

13. GLOVES

tie, wallet, cufflinks, belt, and gloves
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Giving gloves is bad luck, and if you give them to a friend it means you will have a fight. Likewise, giving or accepting a gift with the left hand will result in a loss of friendship.

14. PARSLEY

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Parsley is especially difficult to germinate, and so gardeners would traditionally make three sowings, two for the devil and one for the gardener. It is also said to flourish if you swear profusely while planting it. As a consequence, giving parsley to a friend is inadvisable, as it portends bad luck or death. If a friend really covets your parsley, rather than giving them the plants, it is better to just let them “steal” the herb to prevent any bad luck from being passed on.

15. TURQUOISE

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If you have been struggling over what to get for your mother-in-law, look no further. Give the semi-precious gem turquoise, which is supposed to remove any animosity between giver and receiver.

16. PEACOCK FEATHERS

Peacock feather
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Peacock feathers should never be given as gifts, as it is extremely unlucky to have one inside the house—it invokes the magic of the evil eye. Umbrellas and mirrors are also unlucky gifts as they will cause an estrangement.

17. METAL

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Be careful about what metal that gift is made from. Presents made from pewter or zinc are omens of long life and happiness, whereas a present made of tin foretells mischief.

18. CORAL

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Gifts of coral necklaces for children will protect them from harm. It is said that red coral will turn pale if its owner becomes ill and return to full color as they recover.

19. PURSE

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If you give someone a purse or wallet, it is important to make sure you put at least one coin inside it. This will ensure the purse will never be empty and signifies future wealth.

20. SPREAD THE LOVE

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Gifts should not just be given to friends and family; the luck of the household can be preserved by extending generosity to visitors. To protect a household from the mischief of fairies, it is wise to leave out gifts of food or salt to preserve their good feeling. It is also lucky to give gifts to any visiting carol singers.

Sources: The Little Giant Encyclopedia of Superstitions; A Dictionary of Superstitions; The Encyclopedia of Superstitions; The Cassell Dictionary of Folklore; Encyclopedia of Superstitions, Folklore and Occult Sciences.

Hallmark Released Some Adorable Harry Potter Ornaments—Just In Time for Christmas

Amazon
Amazon

Even if you never received your letter of acceptance to Hogwarts on your 11th birthday, you can still add some magic to your Christmas tree this year with some Harry Potter Christmas ornaments from Hallmark. These pieces have more of a minimalist style than Hallmark's other Potter releases, which are modeled to look identical to the characters' movie counterparts. But with that simplicity comes a unique charm that is sure to be popular with Potterheads.

Shoppers can look for seven different ornaments, which include Harry, Ron Weasley, and Hermione Granger in mid-flight, as well as Hedwig, the Sorting Hat, Dobby, and the Hogwarts Crest. Each one comes with a hanger, so is ready to be put on your Christmas tree as soon as its out of the packaging. You can find each one for $9 on Amazon—though be forewarned that Harry is currently out of stock (but you can find an equally adorable replacement Potter for $8).

If you can’t get enough wizarding gifts this holiday season, then check out our Harry Potter gift guide, which includes everything from magical cookbooks to chess sets.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don't return, so we're only happy if you're happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

Why We Eat What We Eat On Thanksgiving

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monkeybusinessimages/iStock via Getty Images

When Americans sit down with their families for Thanksgiving dinner, most of them will probably gorge themselves on the same traditional Thanksgiving menu, with turkey, cranberry sauce, stuffing, and pumpkin pie taking up the most real estate on the plates. How did these dishes become the national "what you eat on Thanksgiving" options, though?

Why do we eat turkey on Thanksgiving?

It's not necessarily because the pilgrims did it. Turkey may not have been on the menu at the 1621 celebration by the Pilgrims of Plymouth that is considered the first Thanksgiving (though some historians and fans of Virginia's Berkeley Plantation might quibble with the "first" part). There were definitely wild turkeys in the Plymouth area, though, as colonist William Bradford noted in his book Of Plymouth Plantation.

However, the best existing account of the Pilgrims' harvest feast comes from colonist Edward Winslow, the primary author of Mourt's Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth. Winslow's first-hand account of the first Thanksgiving included no explicit mention of turkey. He does, however, mention the Pilgrims gathering wild fowl for the meal, although that could just as likely have meant ducks or geese.

When it comes to why we eat turkey on Thanksgiving today, it helps to know a bit about the history of the holiday. While the idea of giving thanks and celebrating the harvest was popular in certain parts of the country, it was by no means an annual national holiday until the 19th century. Presidents would occasionally declare a Thanksgiving Day celebration, but the holiday hadn't completely caught on nationwide. Many of these early celebrations included turkey; Alexander Hamilton once remarked, "No citizen of the U.S. shall refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day."

When Bradford's journals were reprinted in 1856 after being lost for at least half a century, they found a receptive audience with advocates who wanted Thanksgiving turned into a national holiday. Since Bradford wrote of how the colonists had hunted wild turkeys during the autumn of 1621 and since turkey is a uniquely North American (and scrumptious) bird, it gained traction as the Thanksgiving meal of choice for Americans after Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863.

Moreover, there were pragmatic reasons for eating turkey rather than, say, chicken at a feast like Thanksgiving. The birds are large enough that they can feed a table full of hungry family members, and unlike chickens or cows, they don't serve an additional purpose like laying eggs or making milk. Unlike pork, turkey wasn't so common that it seemed like an unsuitable choice for a special occasion, either.

Did the pilgrims have cranberry sauce?

While the cranberries the Pilgrims needed were probably easy to come by, making cranberry sauce requires sugar. Sugar was a rare luxury at the time of the first Thanksgiving, so while revelers may have eaten cranberries, it's unlikely that the feast featured the tasty sauce. What's more, it's not even entirely clear that cranberry sauce had been invented yet. It's not until 1663 that visitors to the area started commenting on a sweet sauce made of boiled cranberries that accompanied meat.

There's the same problem with potatoes. Neither sweet potatoes nor white potatoes were available to the colonists in 1621, so the Pilgrims definitely didn't feast on everyone's favorite tubers.

How about pumpkin pie?

It may be the flagship dessert at modern Thanksgiving dinners, but pumpkin pie didn't make an appearance at the first Thanksgiving. The Pilgrims probably lacked the butter and flour needed to make a pie crust, and it's not clear that they even had an oven in which they could have baked a pumpkin pie. That doesn't mean pumpkins weren't available for the meal, though; they were probably served after being baked in the coals of a fire or stewed. Pumpkin pie became a popular dish on 17th-century American tables, though, and it might have shown up for Thanksgiving as early as the 1623 celebration of the holiday.

This article originally appeared in 2008.

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