Folk Beliefs and Old Wives’ Tales

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Could the white ring around this moon be warning of rain or snow? Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons user SeanMack

Early American farmers (and I’m sure many others) held some strange beliefs. Many of these superstitions survived until well into the 20th century, and some may still be around today. As one old farmer said, “A lot of folks don’t believe in signs, but a heap o’ times the frost nips them folkses’ taters.” Following is a list that I’ve come up with.

  • Plants of darkness (root crops, such as carrots, beets, potatoes, etc.) should be planted in the dark of the moon, or they’ll go all to tops.
  • Above-ground crops should be planted in the light of the moon.
  • To (successfully) grow hot peppers, one must get mad while planting them.
  • If the sun sets behind a bank of clouds on Thursday, it will rain before Sunday.
  • If there’s sweat on the outside of a metal watering trough, it’s going to rain.
  • If you see lightning in the south, it will be dry weather.
  • A red sunset foretells clear weather, while a yellow sunset means rain or worry. (A little different than the familiar “Red skies at night, sailor’s delight, red skies in morning, sailor’s warning).
  • If the electric wires hum, there will be a lightning storm.
  • Thunder in February means there will be frost in May (another version says April).
  • If the wind spreads a chicken’s tail feathers, it’s going to rain.
  • A white ring around the moon means rain or snow.
  • One could take one’s pick of the following two theories about the moon and the possibility of rain.
  • If the new moon is facing with its points down, it’ll soon rain because the moon is full of water and it’s just dumped it all. But on the other hand, if the new moon is on its back, it’ll soon rain because it’s full of water and will soon overflow.
  • Feed your watchdog gunpowder to make him fierce.
  • A dream told before breakfast will come true.
  • The following actions will surely bring bad luck: Shake hands across a gate; sweep the floor after sunset; get out of bed left foot first; carry an ax, shovel or hoe through the house; move a broom from one house to another (unless you first throw it over the roof of the old house); whirl a chair on a single leg (I can understand this one); spill salt; look at the moon through bushes, or drop a hat on the bed.
  • It was also bad luck for a woman or a girl to walk across a room with her bottom bare, or for two people to pass on the stairs.
  • Eggs set on Sunday will hatch all roosters.
  • If you sweep under the bed of a sick person, that person will never regain his strength.
  • If you have money in your pocket when you first see the new moon, turn the money over and you’ll have money the rest of the year.
  • To cure foot cramps, turn your shoes bottom side up before going to bed.
  • To cure fits, tear off the sufferer’s shirt or blouse and burn it.
  • If your wife can’t get pregnant, spank her with a split shingle.
  • To cure a sty on the eye, touch it with the tip of a black cat’s tail.
  • To cure whooping cough, drink mare’s milk.
  • Wear gold beads around the neck to cure a sore throat, or red beads to stop a nose bleed.
  • To cure chapped lips, kiss the middle rail of a rail fence.
  • If a girl burns the cornbread, it means her sweetheart will be angry with her.
  • A pan of kerosene under the bed cures rheumatism.
  • If a girl catches a butterfly and bites off its head, she’ll get a new dress of the same color.
  • If a girl leaves cobwebs on the kitchen door, her suitor won’t come back.
  • If a sparking girl sits on a table, she won’t be married for another year.
  • If a girl clips her fingernails on nine successive Sundays, her sweetheart will come for dinner.
  • If a girl gets her apron wet while washing, her husband will be a drunk.
  • If a red-bird flies across a girl’s path, she’ll be kissed before the night is over.
  • If a girl stubs her toe, and right away kisses her thumb, a sweetheart will appear.
  • If a girl’s skirt flies up it means her sweetheart is thinking of her.
  • It’ll frost six weeks after you hear the first katydid.
  • If, when you blow out a candle, the wick smolders for a long time, bad weather is on the way.
  • Frost is out of the ground when you hear the first frogs.
  • Plant corn when the oak leaves are as big as a squirrel’s ear.
  • It’ll soon rain when smoke from the chimney falls to the ground.
  • Rain before seven, quit by eleven.
  • A pig with a curly tail is easily fattened.
  • Set eggs so they hatch in the sign of Cancer.
  • Never set an even number of eggs to hatch.
  • Cradle your rye on the Fourth of July. (In other words, cut your rye with a cradle scythe)
  • Your corn should be knee-high by the Fourth of July.
  • To establish your dominion over an unbroken horse, rub a dab of your sweat on his nose.
  • If three people with the same first name get together, you can be pretty sure one is a fool.
  • On Candlemas Day (2 February) half the wood and half the hay (should be left).

It would be fun to hear from readers who have additional examples of old folk beliefs, or variations on the ones given here.

Farm Collector Magazine
Farm Collector Magazine
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