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Don't do that - it's bad luck!
And just how, exactly, does that work?
Welcome to the first 5 Minute Break of 2023!
I am writing this on 6th January, having just taken down my Christmas decorations. It didn’t take me long; there was only a string of coloured lights and a few Christmas cards.
OK, just call me the Grinch. Or Scrooge. Bah, humbug, etc.
I chose today to take them down, not because it is the traditional date, or there’s any religious significance for me, but because I happened to be sitting on my sofa gazing absent-mindedly at them, when I suddenly decided their time had come. Hasta la vista, decs.
As I say, there was no particular reason based on religion or tradition. It is purely coincidental that the impulse came on Jan 6th – which is, according to some, Twelfth Night, and therefore the traditional religious time to take them down (see: Church of England). Although it might not have been quite such serendipity, as there are others who say Twelfth Night is actually the 5th January, so I missed it by a day. Apparently it’s all down to whether you count Christmas Day as the First Night, or start counting from the day after. Or whatever.
But the point here is that religious tradition says it is ‘bad luck’ to take them down after Twelfth Night.
This got me thinking. Why do we talk of ‘bad luck’ when you do something contrary to some superstition or tradition? Walking under ladders, new shoes on the table, broken mirrors, a single magpie – there are plenty of examples. And there are many people who will say, with a totally straight face, ‘don’t do [that thing], it will bring you bad luck.’
What? I mean, what? How is that supposed to work, exactly?
It has to work somehow – it can’t just happen spontaneously. If you do something that everyone agrees is ‘bad luck’, and you really believe that actual bad luck will follow, it means there has to be some form of agency, with a process in place. Go with me on this: if there’s a process, then the various stages need to be thought through.
To save you the bother, I have thought them through for you. You can thank me later.
Firstly there has to be an observer, presumably with a clipboard (or nowadays a tablet), who is able to monitor all our actions, all the time, and can see each and every possible breach of a bad luck superstition. Put new shoes on the table? Walked under a ladder? Aha! Spotted you! Gotcha!
Then there needs to be an interpretive stage, where the observer can clearly determine that an infraction has taken place. Did Jonathan genuinely believe it was Twelfth Night when he took his decorations down, even though he was in fact a day late? Or did he walk under that ladder because to go around it would have meant stepping into the road and being knocked down by a passing car? Or maybe he saw a single magpie, but happened to be distracted by it when the second one flew past?
Which then begs the question, is there a right of appeal? “I am sorry, M’lud, but I tripped and fell into the mirror; I did not mean to break it deliberately.” Or is it the superstitious equivalent of a law of ‘strict liability’, where it’s enough that the thing happened, and no intent needs to be proved?
Let’s assume it is. Then, once a breach has been observed and verified, there needs to be some means of delivering the consequential dose of bad luck. A sort of cosmic ‘Bad Luck Genie’, able to make the appropriate amount of shit hit the fan.
Of course, there are those who would say all this sounds like the work for a god (or God, if you’re so inclined). Although it does seem an awful lot of work, given he’s probably run off his feet catching up with all the thoughts and prayers sent his way by people who’ve seen a natural disaster on the news, or mislaid their car keys.
But there’s a good reason why it can’t be God. That’s because apparently he has a plan. One which he delivers in his own mysterious way. So it doesn’t seem likely that he can get side-tracked by people breaking superstitions and needing to be punished with the necessary dose of ‘bad luck’. Especially as both the breach of the superstition and the misfortune that follows would necessarily be part of his plan anyway. Who needs free will, when you have God?
Or maybe our current God leaves this sort of thing to his Greek colleagues, who seemed way less deterministic, and much more capricious. If so, then this would mean that if you believe in superstitions, then you also believe in Zeus and co – which does rather put you at odds with the modern religions. Think about it – Zeus dishing out a dose of bad luck because a Christian took his Christmas decorations down a day late? Nah – doesn’t work, does it?
And finally, there’s the whole attribution thing. What particular piece of bad luck occurred as a consequence of breaking the superstition? I mean, is it just a case of ‘shit happens’, or is there a direct cause-and-effect thing going on?
So, there we are. We have superstitions handed down like malevolent memes that threaten ‘bad luck’ if you break them, with no real explanation as to how the consequential ‘bad luck’ actually happens.
You couldn’t make it up.
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