20 Traditional Gift-Giving Superstitions

’Tis the season to brush up on some folklore.
Your gift may mean more than meets the eye.
Your gift may mean more than meets the eye. / Anna Efetova/Moment/Getty Images

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

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

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

Design for a pendant with violets, enameled gold with an opal, circa 1905.
Design for a pendant with violets, enameled gold with an opal, circa 1905. / Heritage Images/GettyImages

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 (the stones are also a lot more fragile than popular choices like diamonds or sapphires).

4. Shoes

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

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5. Cats

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

photo of two people taking a selfie on a digital camera
He better not print that photo and give it to her as a gift. / Philippe Regard/Stockbyte/Getty Images

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

It’s unlucky to give a gift and then 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

In old English tradition, it’s 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

Christmas present wrapped in black paper and elegantly decorated
Here's hoping the present inside is more colorful. / lambada/E+/Getty Images

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

In the Victorian era, roses were an especially popular gift between lovers, as they were associated with secret passions. It’s often said 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

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

White French Lilac flowers in soft sunlight on a gray background in springtime.
Stay away from white lilac if your giftee is ill. / By Eve Livesey/Moment/Getty Images

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

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

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

photo of a person wearing a turquoise ring
A turquoise ring could make for a nice gift. / Edward Berthelot/GettyImages

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 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

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

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. (For environmental and sustainability reasons, though, coral is not a great gift for anyone.)

19. Purse

photo of a woman receiving a purse as a gift
Maybe there's a coin inside for good fortune. / Dobrila Vignjevic/E+/Getty Images

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

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’s 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.

A version of this story originally ran in 2017; it has been updated for 2023.