Thanksgiving Superstition: Why Do We Break Wishbones?

Where does the tradition of breaking a wishbone come from? Believe it or not, the superstition has roots in ancient Italy, where chickens were thought to have special divination powers.

Since the American Thanksgiving is specific to the United States, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume traditions and superstitions related to the holiday are no older than the nation itself.

Though settlers arrived and feasted in 1621, even the earliest Americans were influenced before relocating by cultural traditions passed down for centuries, having evolved over time.

Which bring us to the wishbone superstition: Why on earth do we break wishbones?

The tradition goes like this: two people take hold of the turkey’s wishbone, or furcula, a bone that connects head with neck (similar to a collar bone). They make a wish, and pull until it breaks; the person left with the larger half will have their wish come true.

An age old practice

As a tradition, making wishes off a bird’s furcula actually dates back to the ancient Italian civilization called the Etruscans, who passed on their tradition to the Romans, who in turn passed it to the English, who brought it to America (along with some horrible diseases).

The Etruscans believed that chickens had predictive powers. According to one essay, women could choose husbands by allowing the bird to peck at corn scattered on an alphabet chart, similar to a Ouija board.[contextly_auto_sidebar]

Mental Floss describes this ritual as alectryomancy or “rooster divination,” which scribes and local priests would interpret to solve pressing issues or catch thieves. Because who better to trust with the fate of your city than a bird?

According to one divination glossary, the practice would happen when the sun and moon were in Leo or Aries, though sources vary on the preferred bird — some say a black hen, others say a young white rooster.

After the priests’ interpretation, the bird would be killed, with the furcula left to dry in the sun. An Etruscan hoping to benefit from the magic bird’s leftover powers could pick the bone up, stroke it, and make a wish, according to the book The Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things.

Why was this bone alone so special? Everyday Things suggests it’s because the V shape resembles the human crotch, and was therefore a symbol of the “repository of life.”

From the Etruscans, to the Romans, to the British, to the Americas

It wasn’t until the Romans adopted the superstition that the wishbone would be ritually broken, which stemmed from a simple case of supply and demand: there weren’t enough bones for everyone to wish on, leading to the tug-of-war gesture we are now familiar with.

By the time it reached England, it had become a mealtime tradition to break wishbones.

After the first Thanksgiving in the New World, when settlers discovered a land ripe with wild fowl (and thus, ample furculas), the practice became a celebratory one that has been carried throughout the years: from the chicken worshipers in ancient Italy all the way to today’s football-worshiping Americans.

Updated. Cover image courtesy of Sam Howzit and srqpix via Flickr. Modified by Curiousmatic.

We measure success by the understanding we deliver. If you could express it as a percentage, how much fresh understanding did we provide?
Jennifer Markert