How We Came to Make Wishes on These 11 Things

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Happy 11/11! Today is considered a lucky day for the superstitious, and a great day to make a wish if you happen to catch the clock when it hits 11:11. Almost everyone has made a wish on a coin before dropping it into a well or before blowing away an eyelash, but where did those traditions come from?

1. Birthday candles

You can probably thank the Ancient Greeks for putting candles on cakes. Baked goods were brought to the temple of Artemis, the goddess of the hunt and the moon, as offerings; they were adorned with candles to signify the glow of the moon. It was believed that smoke was a vehicle to bring prayers to the gods; that might be the origin of wishing while blowing out candles.

The first birthday cake is believed to be from Germany in the middle ages. Young children would receive these treats for their birthdays in a celebration called Kinderfest. Candles were placed on the cake—one for each year of life, and an extra candle for the coming year—to represent the “light of life.” The superstition is to blow out the candles and make a silent wish.

2. Eyelashes

Wishing on eyelashes was common folklore in the mid-19th century. A fallen eyelash is placed on the back of the hand before the wisher throws it over their shoulder. If the eyelash gets stuck, the wish does not come true. A Cornish schoolgirl version dictates that the eyelash should be placed on the tip of the nose; if she blows it off, she'll get her wish.

3. Shooting stars

Ptolemy, Greco-Egyptian writer and astronomer, believed that shooting stars were a sign that the gods were looking down and listening to wishes.

4. Ladybugs

Ladybugs get their name from the Virgin Mary, who was often portrayed in a red cloak in medieval times. The beetle’s redness represented her cloak, and the black spots were her sorrows. The bugs have long been a symbol of a good harvest, likely due to their knack for eating pests that would harm crops. Farmers would pray to the Virgin Mary to protect their crops, and if ladybugs appeared, the crops would be saved, seemingly miraculously.

Thanks to farmers, ladybugs are considered good luck; if one lands on you, it is believed to grant you a wish.

5. 11:11

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The origin of society’s fascination with this number sequence is murky at best, but it’s safe to say it has to do with its satisfying symmetry. Numerologists like Uri Geller believe that the number follows people and occurs too frequently to be coincidence. Geller and like-minded New Age philosophers believe that the numbers hold a mystic power. Skeptics dismiss this theory as confirmation bias, but the trend continues nonetheless.

6. White horses

In the mid-19th century, many British children believed that if you crossed paths with a white horse, you could make a wish. Others would count the white horses they saw and would make a wish after reaching a hundred. Children’s author Alison Uttley grew up in Derbyshire in the 1890s, and had a more complicated version: a hundred white horses, a fiddler, a blind man, and a chimney sweep combined would grant a wish.

7. Wishbones

The origin of wishbones dates back to the Etruscans, an ancient Italian civilization. Believing chickens to hold prophetic powers, the Etruscans would perform a ritual called alectryomancy, or “rooster divination.” Chickens were placed in the middle of a circle divided into wedges (one for each letter of the alphabet). Bits of food were scattered on each section, and scribes would take note of each wedge the chickens snacked from. The letters were then taken to the local priests, who would use the information to answer the city’s questions about the future. It was sort of like an ancient Ouija board.

After the oracle chicken was killed, the wishbone, or furcula, was laid out in the sun to be preserved. People would come to stroke and wish on the bone, believing it to retain the powers of the living chicken. The Romans eventually picked up this tradition, but gave it their own twist: Due to a high demand for the bones, two people would share one and break it in half. The owner of the larger half got their wish.

8. Dandelions

Young girls commonly used dandelions in the 1800s for romantic and oracular purposes. It was believed that if you blew on a dandelion and all the seeds flew away, your loved one returned the feelings; if any seeds remained, they might have reservations or no feelings at all. Children would blow on these flowers while thinking hard about the objects of their affection. Eventually this tradition spread to encompass all wishing, romantic or otherwise.

9. Leprechauns

Leprechauns are mischievous mythological creatures that will supposedly grant you three wishes if you catch one. The ancient Irish folklore can trace its roots back to small river spirits known as luchorpáns, or “small body.” The spirits eventually morphed into the little green-suited men we know today.

A popular folk etymology is that the word comes from the Irish leath bhrogan, or shoemaker. Leprechauns were once thought to be humble cobblers who made a decent living and each had their own pot of gold.

10. Wishing well

According to European folklore, wishing wells were homes for deities, or gifts from gods. Water is a valuable commodity; many early European tribes treated wells as shrines and often placed small statues of gods nearby. People would come to the wells to pray and ask for assistance from the gods. Although the idea that gods are watching over wells has faded with history, the tradition of making wishes and giving an offering (usually a coin) continues.

11. First star

Most people have grown up knowing the following rhyme:

Star light star bright, The first star I see tonight, I wish I may, I wish I might, Have the wish I wish tonight.

The rhyme dates back to America in the late 19th century. Mothers would sing the rhyme to their children when putting them to bed. Later, the rhyme inspired the song, “When You Wish Upon a Star,” from the 1940 Disney movie, Pinocchio.

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