November 25, 2020

Bones, Apples, and Pie: Folk Magic for Thanksgiving

Since it's a holiday this week I thought I'd turn away from the usual witches and ghosts to write about something more light-hearted. But fear not! I'll get back to the spooky stuff next week. 

While browsing through some old books I came upon this familiar piece of folklore:

The forked bone just in front of the breastbone of a chicken or other fowl is known as the wishbone. If this bone chances to fall to you, preserve it and put it on the shelf behind the stove to dry. When properly seasoned you take hold of one end, let a friend take hold of the other, each make a wish, and then both pull. The wish of the one that has the top with his piece when it breaks will come true. (Clifton Johnson, What They Say in New England, 1896) 

Many of you have probably broken the wishbone and the tradition has very old roots. The Latin term for the wishbone is furcula, which apparently means 'little fork', and different types of folklore about this particular bone date back to at least the Middle Ages. Jeffrey Webb's American Myths, Legends, and Tall Tales (2016) claims they date back even further, to the ancient Etruscans who lived more than 2,000 years ago. It's a very intriguing bone, apparently. 

Mel McCuddin, Wishbone (2011), at the Art Spirit Gallery.

The specific tradition of getting your wish if you get the bigger piece of the bone is not ancient but is still quite old. Edward Armstrong's book The Folklore of Birds (1970) claims the practice of wishing upon the bone originated in the 1700s. So if you pull on the wishbone this year during your socially distanced celebration recognize that you are carrying on a centuries-old tradition, albeit under unusual circumstances.

Not everyone eats turkey so sadly not everyone can participate in the wishbone tradition. I did once buy a Tofurky that included a fake wishbone in the box but those fake bones aren't part of the Tofurky anymore. There is folklore about making pie, however, so even vegans can join in the holiday fun:

When a girl trims piecrust, and the trimming falls over her hand, it is a sign she is going to marry young (Clifton Johnson, What They Say in New England, 1896)

Nineteenth century folklore collections are full of omens that predict marriage. In a pre-liberated era, marriage loomed even larger in people's minds than it does today, and it particularly did for young women, who usually had limited career and life choices. Even the humble act of making pie could provide an indicator of one's marital future.

If you are making apple pie you have even more options for fortune-telling. One well-known tradition instructs a woman to peel an apple in one strip and then throw the peel over her shoulder. The peel will form the shape of a letter on the ground, and that letter will be the first initial of the man she will marry. Some accounts say you need to swing the peel around your head three times before throwing it down, so don't omit that crucial step.

A weirder piece of apple folklore comes from Maine. A young woman curious about her marital prospects should eat an apple at midnight while standing in front of a mirror. In one hand she should carry a lamp or candle for light. As she eats the apple she should recite the following incantation:

Whoever my true love may be

Come and eat this apple with me

Something about eating an apple at midnight and evoking an unknown lover to appear sounds a little spooky to me. I guess I wasn't able to resist the urge to write about spooky things after all. Have a safe and happy Thanksgiving, even if you spend it alone this year.


In addition to Clifton Johnson's book, I got material for this week's post from Fanny Bergen's book Current Superstitions (1896).


David Bart said...

Thank you for this very fine article. I somehow already knew of these practices or other very similar ones. I appreciate your observation about the role folklore played in the lives of women whose prospects and control over their future was limited.

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