Maybe you call them old wives’ tales or just a bunch of hoodoo. Whatever they’re called, superstitions are rooted deep in Southern history and culture. Whatever your beliefs are, it won’t take you long to find someone in the deep South that holds fast to these much-believed “truths.” Some are so silly that they didn’t make the list. Itchy palms mean money is coming to you. Fish dreams foretell someone you know is having a baby. While there might be some that still believe those to be true, the following superstitions still hold in many Southern homes. So sit a spell under the haint blue of your front porch eating a bowl of black-eyed peas, and let us tell you some of our favorite Southern superstitions.
- Haint BlueStill prominent throughout the South, and especially the Low Country, porch ceilings, doors, and even shutters are painted “haint” blue to ward off evil spirits (photo courtesy of Lake Lou)
While this superstition spread throughout the South, it was (and still is) most prominent in the Lowcountry, particularly South Carolina. Known as the Gullah Geechee people, they’re the descendants of slaves brought from West and Central Africa. After the war, they developed their own creole and held fast to the beliefs passed down by their ancestors. One of them was fear of “haints” or spirits. They didn’t believe spirits could cross over water, thus the blue color painted on porch ceilings and doors to ward off the evil spirits.
- New Year’s MealWhile recipes vary, Hoppin’ John is a time-honored New Year’s tradition rooted in the superstition of eating pork, greens, and black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day (photo courtesy of Kristen Taylor)
This Southern superstition has become more of a tradition over the years, and it will be hard to find a home in the South not serving up the defining trinity of New Year’s—pork, black-eyed peas, and greens. The reasoning behind it all is fairly simple. Greens (properly served as a mess o’greens) resemble folded money for wealth in the New Year.
Black eyed-peas on the other hand, offer good luck for the coming year. Some Southerners will even tell you to eat one pea for every day of the new year. This tradition has Civil War roots. An old legend says that during the war, the city of Vicksburg, Mississippi, ran out of food. Some residents then discovered black-eyed peas that saved the residents from starvation. Now that’s lucky. Hoppin’ John is the most traditional way to eat this dish, and it contains another piece of a traditional Southern New Year’s meal—pork.
Down in the South we like to think outside the “pig” box. It doesn’t have to be ham or a nice lean tenderloin. Pork belly or jowl will do just fine. This superstition comes from the pig’s behavior. Pigs like to root at the ground with their snouts, typically in a forward movement. Similarly, the tradition of eating pork on New Year’s is said to allow one to “move forward” in the New Year.
- Bottle Trees Bottle trees are meant to capture evil spirits lurking around a home (photo courtesy of Pag Asa)
As does much Southern tradition and folklore, this superstition was introduced by slaves brought from central Africa. A deeply superstitious people, they believed evil spirits could be caught in glass bottles placed outside. When the spirit was caught, one could cork the bottle and throw it into the river to wash it away. Eventually these bottles came to be put into trees, many believing it was a sort of melding of the bottles with a graveside tradition of placing plates on sticks around the grave to honor the dead. Either way, it spread like wildfire through the South, and you can still see bottle trees in gardens and flowerbeds everywhere below the Mason-Dixon Line.
- A Mirror on Your Porch Keep a mirror outside your door in Cajun Country to keep the devil outside (photo courtesy of Michael Kappel)
If you’ve ever seen a mirror hanging on the porch of a home in the South, be assured not a single spirit has passed through the abode.
Mirrors have a strong presence in the folklore and superstitions in many cultures. Some cultures still cover mirrors in the home after the death of a loved one so that the soul isn’t trapped in the mirror. But this particular superstition is meant to protect the home and goes back to Cajun Country. Cajun folklore says the devil can’t pass up an opportunity to look at himself. They believed he would stare at himself until morning and flee at the daylight. Others believe the mirror will catch any evil spirits attempting to enter the house.
- Holding Your Breath While Passing a Cemetery A common superstition throughout the South is to hold one’s breath when passing a cemetery so as not to allow any spirit to be breathed in
At this point, it’s pretty easy to tell that warding off evil spirits is big priority in the South. This one goes for both evil and good. When passing a cemetery, always hold your breath. If you don’t, it’s possible a spirit of someone recently deceased will enter your body when you breathe in. One theory is that this tradition comes from the days when contagious illnesses devastated populations. People would cover their mouths or hold their breath around the sick and dying to avoid getting infected. But it’s more likely they honestly believed they could inhale the spirit of the dead.
This is close in resemblance to another superstition no longer practiced. Always open the window when a death occurs in a home to allow the spirit to leave.
Perhaps that’s why there’s so many haints floating around in the South.
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