Aberglaube: A guide to German superstitions
You’ve probably come across some strange superstitions in your life – no matter where in the world you may have been. Maybe you believed in one yourself, or perhaps you thought it was strange. Maybe you didn’t even realise it was a superstition – it was just a part of your daily routine and you probably didn’t think twice about it!
However they appear to the outside world, each country has its own odd and sometimes unexplainable beliefs and traditions that people still follow today. Germany is no different. Here is a guide to some of Germany’s strangest superstitious beliefs (Aberglaube), and the reasoning behind them – after all, you never know when they might come in handy!
Prost – Drinking superstitions
Drinking beer is a vital part of German culture, and a tradition that dates back centuries. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that over the years, this tradition has intertwined itself with a number of odd superstitions and practices.
Let’s start with the basics. We all go out for a drink with our friends once in a while. If you do this in Germany, you may notice your buddies knocking on the table as a greeting when they join you. This is not because they hate waving, but rather, because traditionally, the Stammtisch (a regular’s table at a pub or tavern) was made of oak – a holy tree that the devil was unable to touch. Thus, by knocking on the oak, you were indicating to your friends that you weren’t the devil in disguise – something they would appreciate, we're sure!
Now that it’s established that you’re not the devil, a round of beer is ordered for everyone. Before taking the first sip, it’s essential to clink glasses and say “cheers” (Prost). Remember, eye contact is an absolute must in such scenarios, because otherwise you’ll be cursed with bad sex for seven years – not something you’d want to risk.
In the off chance that you’re staying away from alcohol and sticking to water, never ever clink glasses. This means that you are wishing death on all of your friends. This tradition comes from the Ancient Greeks, who toasted their dead by raising a glass of water.
The joy of giving (gifts)
That last minute rush to buy someone a present – we’ve all been there. While this might have been a good deal simpler in the good old days, the abundance of choices available today make the decision a lot harder to make. Thankfully, Germans have certain seemingly strange gift-giving superstitions and rules that might narrow down the options a tiny bit.
Housewarmings are particularly easy – the traditional way to go would be to gift the family bread (Brot) and salt (Salz), as this would ensure that they never go hungry in their new home. However, whatever you do, don’t spill the salt, as that can cost you seven years of bad luck! This superstition comes from a period when salt was a very expensive and valuable commodity, so spilling some was considered a huge waste.
You can, of course, be creative and get them something else for their home, but be sure to cross knives off your list. Knives, when gifted, are believed to cause the receiver injury and sometimes even death.
For other occasions, if you’re stumped for ideas, you can always plump for a nice new leather wallet. However, you can’t gift an empty wallet! No, you’ve got to put a coin in it, to ensure that the recipient will never be poor. If wallets aren’t your thing, you might look for something else, but beware of getting shoes, especially for your lover. You’ll only have yourself to blame when they run away in them!
Congratulating someone – it’s only polite!
Every country has their own unique methods of congratulating people on their birthdays, their anniversaries, on holidays or even just wishing them good luck. We are all familiar with the thumbs-up sign that, to most people, indicates good luck. In Germany however, the way to wish someone luck is by pressing your thumbs to the inside of your hand (Daumen drücken).
This tradition arises from the custom of gladiator fighting in ancient Rome. Hands with their thumb up indicated that the gladiator would be executed, whereas hands with hidden thumbs meant they were to live – certainly an indication of good luck! On the other hand, crossing two fingers - a sign many of us associate with good luck - is something Germans do behind their backs when they lie.
But these strange superstitions do not end with wishes of good luck. Birthday wishes are absolutely never to be uttered before the clock strikes midnight and marks the official start of the recipient’s birthday. The reasoning behind this lies in the fact that it is impossible to predict what will happen between now and a future point in time. So, by wishing someone a happy birthday before their actual birthday, you are assuming something that has no guarantee of occurring, and thus inviting bad luck with open arms – do you really want to risk that?
Every country has at least a couple of weird wedding traditions and superstitions that have gone on so long that we don’t even question them anymore. Germany is not exempt of these. During a German wedding, rice – instead of flowers – is thrown at the bride and groom to ensure fertility and many, many kids. So maybe avoid this tradition if you’re not that keen on children!
It seems that’s not the only area in which flowers are replaced at a traditional German wedding. At the end of a wedding, when the bride would usually typically throw her bouquet in lots of parts of the world, Germans follow a different tradition.
The bride and groom sit down on their marriage bed, while the bridesmaids and groomsmen turn around, slip off their socks and stockings, and fling them in the direction of the newlyweds. Whoever succeeds in hitting one of their faces will be the next to marry – so practice your backward-throwing skills the next time you attend a German wedding!
Breaking something ceramic, glass or porcelain might be a reason to apologise in many countries, but not in Germany. Germans consider it good luck to break something made of ceramic or porcelain, especially on one’s wedding day. They even have a saying for it – “Scherben bringen Glück” (shards bring luck) – because the loud, crashing sounds of breaking porcelain and ceramic supposedly ward off evil.
So, if you want to share in this good luck and keep evil at bay, don’t be afraid to break a plate or two. However, remember to steer clear of mirrors. While shards of porcelain may bring good luck, shards of a mirror are said to cost you seven years of bad luck! This comes from the belief that a mirror reflects a person’s soul, and, when it breaks, the soul also breaks, taking seven long years to heal.
Animals may be oblivious to certain social norms and traditions, but that doesn’t stop a number of superstitious beliefs from being pinned on them – of which Germany also has its fair share.
The superstitious idea that black cats crossing your path bring bad luck, is common in many countries, especially in Europe. However, Germans like to be a bit more specific in their beliefs. According to them, the direction in which the black cat crosses your path determines whether it will bring you good or bad luck. They even have a saying:
“Schwarze Katze von rechts nach links, Glück bringt’s" (Black cat from right to left brings luck).
"Schwarze Katze von links nach rechts, was Schlecht’s.” (Black cat from left to right brings bad luck).
But these strange beliefs are not limited to stray black cats, and sometimes even extend to one's own pets. Many Germans bury their dead dog under their front doorstep, so that their ghost can then continue guarding the house even after their death.
It is often believed in Germany that lighting a cigarette with a candle kills a sailor, although the origins of this lie so far back that most people don’t really know why. This idea actually originates from a time when sailors attempted to increase their meagre income by selling matches. Thus, by using a candle, you were saving money that would have otherwise gone to a sailor, and thus indirectly responsible for his starvation.
Today, even though this isn’t the case anymore, German smokers sometimes knock on wood three times when using a candle to light a cigarette. This is supposed to cancel out the bad luck.