As children we live in a world full of magic. Everything is new and unexplored, which means we have a real easy time believing that wishes will come true and that fictitious characters such as Santa Claus are real.
I, myself, was one of those kids who, at the ripe old age of nine, cried and cried when I discovered that Father Christmas and the Easter Bunny were not real. The same cannot be said for the Tooth Fairy though – a little lady who enjoys collecting teeth turning out to be nothing more than a falsehood was more of a relief than a heartbreak situation.
Although my believing might have been a bit prolonged compared to others’, which I blame on the old only child cop-out, I look back at how much more fun the world was when it was full of magic. As we approach adulthood, our cynicism grows and we are conditioned to put our faith in fact instead.
However, I have found that there is one tradition that even the most skeptical of us will partake in, and that is making wishes. Shooting stars, four-leaf clover, and stray eyelashes all offer opportunities for us to cast our deepest desires out into the universe, with the hope that these inanimate objects will take on the gruelling task of fulfillment. Which as far as the rationality spectrum goes, would probably fall towards the more nonsensical side of the continuum.
Nevertheless, the practice of wishing has been undertaken for centuries, some of the traditions even dating back thousands of years. Making a wish when seeing a shooting star, for instance, is thought to have been born from an idea created in approximately AD 127-151 by Greek astronomer Ptolemy.
After seeing a meteor shower in the night sky, he concluded that it was the gods making gaps between the spheres to look down on us, resulting in a star occasionally falling into the earthly realm. With the gods’ eyes upon us at this point in time it makes sense to cast our wishes as they are more likely to hear us (I guess they used the term astronomer a little more loosely in those days).
Wishing wells are another example of European folklore that is still taken seriously today. In 2006 a financial services marketing agency called Teamspirit estimated that British tourists throw £3million into wells every year.
Luckily, most of the money collected from these wells ends up going to charity, so even if our wishes remain ignored at least good karma should still be on our way.
The assumption that wells bring good luck can be traced back to Norse mythology, when it was believed that the Nordic god Odin offered his eye to a ‘well of wisdom’ in exchange for the gift of foresight and understanding how the universe works.
In fact, bodies of water in general have always held a supernatural quality in the eyes of people, as water is believed to be the generator of life and, if left without it, we could not exist.
So, a bit more logic behind that one.
Now, to a tradition that most of us do not even think twice about – making wishes on the candles that adorn our birthday cakes. Whoever thought it would be a good idea to put fire near the faces of children/drunk people/those who are mentally decaying was clearly a little wacko (because, come on, it is not only sound-of-mind people in their 40s who have birthdays, and no one wants to get the discrimination allegations coming their way). On the other hand, the tradition was started a long, long time ago when injustices were probably a lot less frowned upon.
Anyhow, it was the Ancient Greeks that believed they were paying tribute to the moon goddess Artemis via this ritual. The round cake represented the moon itself, with the candles reflecting its light. Nowadays, when we blow out these candles, we like to believe that if we can take ‘em out in one fell swoop our wish will come true.
Another rule many people employ is that the wishes we make must be kept secret, because otherwise the chance of fulfillment is destroyed.
So there you have it. Religious or not, cynic or not, we are in a small way all paying tribute to the ancient gods by keeping these traditions alive. We may not believe in magic, or that wishes come true, but one can perhaps still marvel at how small, superstitious practices have been able to survive all this time. It may not be as fun as when we were kids, but it’s as close as we can get after the age of 9.
Then again, that could just be wishful thinking.