The History and Mystery of Popular Wishing Customs

As the Disney song from “Pinocchio” goes, “When you wish upon a star, your dreams come true.”
While most people recognize wishes are not magically granted, the process is a wonderful way to identify the objects of your hopes and dreams. Here are a few ways, beyond wishing on that first glowing star of the evening, people around the world practice the custom of wishing.

Wishing Wells and Fountains

You know you’ve done it. Who hasn’t tossed a coin into a fountain and silently hoped for something wonderful to happen? Have you ever wondered why we wish over flowing water? The practice likely began hundreds of years ago. Because water is vital to sustaining human life, when early European tribes came upon clean water, they believed it was a gift from the gods. The Germanic and Celtic peoples of Europe regarded wells and springs as sacred and tossed in coins and other valuable trinkets to ask favors of the gods and to show their appreciation. Copper and silver coins had properties that would often improve the water, so it wasn’t a huge leap to believe coins dropped into a fountain brought luck.
Today, people all over the world throw coins into fountains to make wishes. At West Acres Shopping Center in Fargo, the Fountain of Abundance, located in the JCPenney wing, is constructed beneath a generous skylight to provide a sun-drenched water oasis. Optimistic coin-tossers of all ages take a chance and make a wish. The “proceeds” from the wishes are gathered up monthly (to make room for new wishes) and donated to area charitable organizations and funds. In 2014, more than 45 donations were made.
The Trevi Fountain in Rome, Italy, is one of the world’s most famous recipients of coin-inspired wishes, thanks in part to the 1954 movie, “Three Coins in the Fountain.” Legend says the person who tosses a coin into Trevi Fountain will one day return to Rome. It is estimated the fountain generates approximately $4,000 each day which is given to a local charity.

Dandelions

The dandelion has a multi-faceted reputation. While many consider it a pesky weed, it is loaded with vitamins and minerals and may have health benefits. The dandelion’s use as a folk remedy to cure many ills may have led people to believe it was magical. Many believers rely on the dandelion to facilitate their wish traditions. One practice suggests when you see the brilliant yellow of the first dandelion of the season spring up, you make your wish. The other legend has to do with the dandelion after it matures into a puff ball. The white fuzz that develops as the dandelion ages is attached to the seeds. According to Irish custom, you pick the dandelion at this stage of development, make a wish, and gently blow the fluff. If all of the fluffy seeds dissipate with a single blow, your wish will be granted.

Wishbone

When your family gathers together for Thanksgiving, does everyone fight over the wishbone? The wish tradition is that after the wishbone (a part of the breastbone of a bird) is cleaned and dried, two people hold each end of the bone between their thumb and forefinger, make a wish, and pull it apart until it breaks. The person with the larger piece of bone will get his or her wish granted.
The history has some foundation in the ancient belief that fowl were fortune tellers. Thousands of years ago, Italians would touch the dried clavicle of a bird and make a wish. This morphed into two people tugging on either end of the wishbone. The English took many of the Roman customs, so when the Pilgrims arrived in the new world, the wish tradition surrounding fowl came with them. The abundance of turkeys made them the center of our Thanksgiving feast, and the turkey wishbone ritual followed right along. The wishbone can be found in any bird, so the custom includes turkeys, chickens, and other fowl any time of year.

Birthday Candles

The ritual of putting candles on cakes can likely be traced back to ancient Greece. The Greeks delivered round cakes, symbolizing the moon, to the temple of Artemis to honor the moon goddess. They lit candles adorning the cakes to represent the glow of the moon. Other cultures began fashioning round cakes and consuming them simply because of their delicious taste. The first birthday cake seems to have evolved from Germany in the Middle Ages. The Germans commemorated the birthdays of young children with cakes, calling the celebration Kinderfest. A candle would often adorn the cake to represent the “light of life.” Today, many cultures place candles on cakes. Typically, the number of candles on the cake represents the age of the person being celebrated. The wish tradition calls for that person to make a silent request and blow out all the candles in one breath, so the wish comes true (as long as you keep your wish a secret).

Shooting Stars

The cosmic wonder of stars shooting through the sky undoubtedly played a role in their becoming a wish tradition. Technically speaking, these glowing trails are not stars but meteors, produced when a meteoroid burns up in the Earth’s atmosphere. Cultures worldwide have different beliefs about shooting stars. The superstition of hoping for wishes to be granted when witnessing a shooting star probably dates back to the ancient world.
Some believe if you make a wish while viewing a shooting star, it will come true. Other cultures believe you must do something in addition to wishing while viewing the shooting star in order for your wish to come true. In Chili, legend says you must pick up a stone, and in the Philippines, you need to tie a knot in a handkerchief before the meteor burns out in order for your wish to come true.

Rainbows

Millions of tiny rain droplets reflect light which creates the awe-inspiring beauty of the rainbow.
A variety of wishing customs surround this natural, colorful prism. One tradition suggests you make a wish at the first sign of a rainbow. Another says when you see a rainbow, you should wish for money, which is likely an extension of the Irish legend that there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. A third tradition says that, upon witnessing this rare weather phenomenon, you wish for the same thing three times as you look at the beginning, middle, and end of the rainbow.
Many of these wish customs have been observed throughout the world for hundreds—in some cases, thousands—of years. The fervent desire or hope for something not easily attainable keeps people tossing coins into fountains, blowing fluff off of dandelions, or wishing on stars. And sometimes, just identifying these hopes and dreams is the first step in making them come true—so maybe wishes really do work!
(Information for this article was gathered from a number of sources including: “Wishing Traditions Around the World” by M. J. Cosson, “Wish: Wishing Traditions Around the World” by Roseanne Thong and www.thewishingproject.com.)
Kelly Lynch is the editor-in-chief of The Village Family Magazine. Send comments to her at magazine@TheVillageFamily.org.

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