“Die Neujahrsbretzel für den Herrn Pfarrer”, 1884 (via Wikimedia Commons)
I’ve had several people recommend a book to me called The Five Love Languages, by Gary Chapman. It’s a book that looks at the various ways in which people give and receive love. It gets into a lot of psychology and interpersonal communication theories, but in a nutshell it assumes that people tend to give or receive affection via physical touch, loving words, acts of kindness or service, quality time, or gifts. I am definitely a gift-giver when it comes to expressing my feelings—I will work for weeks to handcraft something for someone I care about. When my lovely wife and I were courting, I put hundreds of sticky notes all over her apartment with love messages so that she would constantly find them for months and months afterwords. Even when we ship products out of our Etsy shop, I tend to add layers of Spanish moss to the packing material, as well as little lagniappe touches to the shipment to make it feel magical for the person who opens the box. None of this is to brag, but simply to frame the point that giving gifts is a major part of my connection to others.
Giving gifts has been an important aspect of human relationships for a very lnog time. The Ancient Roman patronage system essentially operated on a large-scale gifting economy. In North America, giving gifts with a magical bent appears time and again. A number of superstitions and rituals surround the acts of gifting and receiving gifts. Possibly one of the gifts most beset by magical rules is the knife:
- One must not give a friend a knife or other sharp instrument, as it “cuts love.” (Price 34).
- “Giving a knife as a gift is bad luck as it cuts the friendship” (Hines 12).
- A present of knives will break the friendship between you (the giver) and the recipient of the gift. (Hines 13)
- No hillman would think of giving a steel blade to a friend such a gift is sure to sever their friendship (Randolph 58).
The ‘hillman’described in the last point would have been obliged to pay for a knife if he received it as a gift, in order to abate any potential tragedies:
Whenever a knife changes hands, it must be paid for, even if the sum is merely nominal. I have seen a salesman, a graduate of the University of Missouri, present his son with a valuable hunting knife but he never let it out of his hand till the boy had given him a penny (Randolph 58).
This is a sentiment I’ve seen echoed through other traditions as well, including some Wiccan circles and their beliefs about gifting athames. I have also seen contrary points, insisting that Wiccan ritual blades must never be purchased, but only gifted.
Knives, however, are only scratching the surface of the myriad taboos, beliefs, and customs surrounding giving and receiving. In the following paragraphs, I hope to lay out some of these traditions (though certainly not all of them… The concept of Christmas and birthday gifts is well outside the scope of a single survey article, for example, and the topic is much larger than a 2,000 word synopsis could handle). What I hope that you will see is the sheer humanity of this process. People seem to develop an entire language around gifting (see the Victorians and their flowers, for example), and understanding that language, especially within a magical context, expands the conversation on American folk magic immensely.
Since we’ve started in the domestic realm with knives, let’s continue in that vein. In the Ozarks, even very small gifts can have great significance:
A button received as a gift is always lucky, no matter what the color. Years ago, many an Ozark girl collectedbuttons from her friends and strung them together into a sort of necklace called a charm string. A charm string not only brought good fortune to the owner but also served as a sort of memory book for women who could not read one button recalled a beloved aunt, another a friend’s wedding, still another a dance or a quilting party or an apple-peelin’ or some other pleasant occasion. (Randolph 61)
These little tokens often represent a greater whole. In the example Randolph cites the ‘memory book’ aspect of the charm pushes it out of the realm of luck and into a broader realm of personal narrative. It tells the story of where the girl has been. The luck may then be a cumulative blessing from all those around her, an assembly of good wishes designed to attract further goodness into her life. Similarly, some fairly small gifts can act as predictors or insurance of future blessings, as in these two examples from Louisiana:
- A midwife should plant a flower for a baby at its birth.
- It is good luck for visitors to place a silver coin in a baby’s hand (Roberts 150).
Here we see blessings which ensure growth and health (the flower) and insurance against poverty (the coin) passed onto a baby, with the hopes that the child will grow and prosper in the future.
Of course, there are just as many taboos on gifting as there are joyous customs. As we saw with knives, some of those can be firmly established and nigh universal at times. Let’s look at another domestic commonplace with strong taboos:
- Never borrow salt or you will have bad luck (Hines 12).
- Never return salt that has been borrowed (Roberts 178)
Why salt? In my family, we frequently gave salt as a component of a new house blessing for people we knew, which as I understood it derived from Polish traditions (after investigating this a bit, I’m reasonably sure this was adopted from a similar Jewish custom picked up by my family in the area on the border between Lithuania and Poland). We give a jar of salt with some bread and a penny in it, ‘So that the family may never be hungry (bread), never be poor (penny), and their lives may never lack flavor (salt).” The salt, then, can be seen as the experience and cumulative personality of the family, its seasoning or flavor which makes it distinct. Borrowing someone else’s flavor would, in essence, give them power over you, especially when the salt is returned carrying traces of your own eau de familie. It could also be that by taking one family’s wisdom and experience, then returning it, you set off a disruptive cycle whereby your two families will be struggling to rebalance power for a long time, which definitely sounds like bad luck. A similar Louisiana superstition says ‘Don’t give spades, etc., to your neighbors; you will have a fuss if you do (Roberts 174). In that case, the tool is symbolic of a person’s work and labor, and to lend it out cheaply doesn’t bode well for anyone (and makes me think of Homer Simpson borrowing essentially every tool in Ned Flanders’ garage…a very bad neighbor).
The issue of when a gift is given can also impact its significance and magical qualities. While I will avoid holidays and the like here, there are plenty of other occasions when gift-giving is an expectation, such as at baby showers:
- At a baby shower, the giver of the seventh gift to be unwrapped will be the next to have a baby (Hines 14).
In this example, the gift-giver receives the magical benefit of a prediction. I suppose that if you are not in the market to start a family, this superstition could seem more like a taboo than a blessing. Another key occasion for giving gifts is after a new family moves into a new home. I mentioned my family’s custom for making a house-blessing from my Polish roots, but it turns out that the general concept of the house-warming may come from the other side of my family tree in the British Isles. The hint of magic behind this tradition comes from the original house-warming present, which actually served to warm a new home:
“As poet John Greenleaf Whittier noted…’The Irish who settled here about the year 1720, they brought indeed with them, among other strange matters, potatoes and fairies.’…The Scots [who were also early settlers in America, particularly in the Mid-Atlantic region and parts of Appalachia]…believed in ‘brownies,’ a more subdued version of the leprechaun. Brownies lived in the kitchen fireplace, and the belief was that the owners of the house had a responsibility to always keep these fairy-creatures warm by keeping a constant fire in the hearth. The Yankees noted that Scots-Americans, when moving from one house to another, would always remove burning embers from the old house to the new, to provide a warm home for the brownies that would move in right along with the family. This was how the tradition of ‘house-warmings’ started” (Cahill 32).
I tend to think this is a bit of fancy on Cahill’s part, and that the giving of gifts to new homeowners is something much older and less literal than a brownie’s ‘house-warming,’ but I would be completely unsurprised to find that the actual practice of moving hearth coals to entice fairy-beings to move houses exists in the Old World or the New.
Marriage also features a number of gift-giving customs, some with superstitious components. For example, in Kansas groups of Russian-German emigrants pin money to the bridal skirt as a way of blessing the bride and groom with prosperity. Additionally, a fun game is made of the best man’s gift, and the “custom of some young buck’s stealing the shoe of the bride. The best man had to redeem the shoe with cash, which went into the household fund” (Tallman 227-8). The best man might contribute some or all of the money, with the remainder raised by good-natured begging of the wedding guests.
A number of tales from Appalachia and New England, including stories from Hubert Davis’ The Silver Bullet and other collections of supernatural American folklore, indicate that magical gifts have particular rules when it comes to witches. For example, a witch might offer a very low price for some livestock or sundries she fancies from a local homestead. If she is refused the gift—which is all such a lowballed agreement could be seen as—she curses whatever it is she wanted, rendering it useless to the family that has it. Often she will curse a cow so it won’t produce milk, or she might even curse an entire herd of pigs or sheep rather than just the one she wanted. On the flip-side, a witch should never be given a present of anything from the household, or she could use it to harm those who dwell within. One story features a housewife who loans the local witch-woman a cup of sugar in a neighborly—if cautious—manner, only to find her butter won’t come when she churns it afterwords. She summons a local witch-doctor who takes a piece of hot silver and drops it in the churn, then spills cream on the fire and whips a pan of the scalded dairy until they hear shrieks from the direction of the witch-woman’s home. She, of course, suffers great pains and bears the marks of a whipping and burning the next day, and everyone knows just what’s what. Oh, and the butter is fine after that, too, of course.
Not all witches or magical practitioners are conniving and dangerous when it comes time to share the wealth, though. For example, many witch-doctors and conjurers in the Southern Mountains will not take direct payment for their work, but only offers of gifts made in-kind, such as foodstuffs, clothing, or other necessities. Vance Randloph noted that one witch woman in the Ozarks did not ask a fee for her work, but would accept such donations: “This woman makes no charge for her services, but if somebody offers her a present, such as a new dress or a side of bacon, she seldom refuses the gift” (Randolph 126).
Lest you think all these magical gifting traditions are limited to the realm of humanity, here’s a bit of lore from John George Hohman’s Long Lost Friend to show otherwise:
A GOOD METHOD OF DESTROYING RATS AND MICE.
Every time you bring grain into your barn, you must, in putting down the three first sheaves, repeat the following words: “Rats and mice, these three sheaves I give to you, in order that you may not destroy any of my wheat.” The name of the kind of grain must also be mentioned. (Hohman 70).
Here we see the old idea of “one for the rabbit, one for the crow, one to rot, and one to sow” extended from nursery rhyme to magical practice. Giving the animals a bit of the household bounty seems to be a way to stave off any thievery on their part, at least in this example.
Finally, I can’t help but offer up a humorous story from Maryland which shows animals getting in on the gift-giving action:
It seems that Mrs. Morison’s uncle and her father went fishing one time and as always they carried their [moonshine] jug along. They came to this water moccasin who was just about ready to swallow a frog. So Mrs. Morison’s father took a forked stick and clamped it down over the snake’s head and took it [the frog] away ‘cause they wanted to use it for bait.
Well, that snake looked so darn downhearted that they gave him a drink of moonshine, and off he went. So they went on with their fishing and about an hour later one of them felt a tug on his leg. He looked down and there was that snake back with another frog. All I can say is, that must have been awful good moonshine” (Carey 31).
I’m not sure if the ‘magic’ in that tale is so much in the moonshine or the moccasin, but I couldn’t resist sharing it with you.
I’m sure there are many other magical giving traditions I’m missing here, so if you have any you want to share, please do!
Thanks for reading,
- Cahill, Robert Ellis. Olde New England’s Strange Superstitions (1990).
- Carey, George G. Maryland Folklore (Tidewater Pub.: 1989).
- Davis, Hubert J. The Silver Bullet, & Other American Witch Stories (Jonathan David Pub.: 1975).
- Hines, Donald M. “Superstitions from Oregon,” Western Folklore, Jan. 1965.
- Hohman, John George. The Long-Lost Friend (Llewellyn, 2012).
- Price, Sadie. “Kentucky Folklore,” Journal of American Folklore, Jan-Mar 1901.
- Randolph, Vance. Ozark Magic & Folklore (Dover: 1964).
- Roberts, Hilda. “Louisiana Superstitions,” Journal of American Folklore, Apr-Jun 1927.
- Tallman, Marjorie. Dictionary of American Folklore (Philosophical Library, NYC: 1959).