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Very superstitious: Evil eyes, birthmarks and blindness

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Very superstitious: Evil eyes, birthmarks and blindness
Photo: DPA
08:37 CEST+02:00
Giving birth while living abroad can be a daunting prospect. The fourth instalment of the Local's series Motherhood in the Fatherland follows expectant mum Sabine Devins as she handles the cultural quirks of having a baby in Germany.

At 27 weeks pregnant, I've taken advantage of the final bits of energy in my second trimester to prepare for the arrival of Baby Devins. The pram has been ordered, furniture has been picked up, and some of it even assembled. But while checking off each item on the massive “to-do” checklist, the German in me can't help the hesitation I feel about getting things done ahead of time. Am I jinxing things?

Here in the Fatherland, it's bad luck to celebrate an event before it happens, especially a birth.

While North American mothers would begin receiving gifts a few weeks before their due date, German friends and family won't bring presents until after the newborn arrives. I have yet to encounter a shop that offers gift registries for mothers-to-be planning a baby shower. It's just not done here.

That's why my Oma Eva was horrified when I told her my Vancouver family members wanted to host a little baby shower when we visited in July. “You can't do that!” she yelled into the phone. “It's bad luck!”

So far, so good, though. Nothing bad has happened in the seven weeks since the little party, though I admit that I knocked on wood.

Though they have a reputation for practicality, efficiency and solemnity, Germans are surprisingly susceptible to old wives' tales (Altweibergeschwätze).

My Oma Gisela likes to tell me how she frequently ate apples while carrying my mother. She kept two on her night stand, enjoying them as midnight snacks. When my Mum was born with rosy red cheeks, everyone reportedly said: “Oh! An apple baby! Look at those cheeks.”

Now Oma Gisela always asks me if I've been eating apples, because heaven forbid Baby Devins is born without a natural blush.

When the baby finally makes the grand entrance, some Germans would have me believe he or she will have birthmarks, thanks to a recent moment of fright. A couple of weeks ago, I was in an U-Bahn metro station when a security dog barked at a friend's terrier. I was startled, which Germans say can leave a mark on the foetus. Good thing there was no fire involved, or else I'd also be on the lookout for a bright red port-wine stain, à la Gorbachev, instead of those coveted apple-blushed cheeks.

I've also heard that the tell-tale bump appears sooner with second pregnancies. Or that if a pregnant woman is sad, she'll have a sad baby. Or that women with narrow hips are more likely to have a breech birth.

Some of these tales may reflect old truths, but many of them, told in all seriousness, are just nonsense.

In some ways I've given in to the more mild superstitions, though. I've been careful to wear pants with the ever-so-flattering maternity belly band. Germans say trying to squeeze into those favourite jeans throughout a pregnancy can suffocate the baby. (Actually the elastic is just more comfortable.)

But my favourite German pregnancy myth could explain why it's nearly impossible to find spicy foods here - it begins in the womb. Old Teutonic wives say that turning up the heat on meals is bad for developing babies because the spices that enter the amniotic fluid will burn their eyes, sometimes even causing blindness.

The truth is that at this point in development, my baby has more taste buds than it will ever have after birth, and the amniotic fluid, which it uses to practice breathing and swallowing, does take on flavours from food I've eaten. But the worst a dish of hot wings can do is give the baby hiccups, leaving me to watch my belly spasm.

Perhaps Germans have a low tolerance for spicy food because they never get the chance to develop the taste for it at the early stages of life.

The bland food may mirror the way other superstitions have affected traditions, particularly when it comes to not celebrating before the birth.

Oma Eva recently explained that four of her five children were baptised in the hospital chapel and the birth was celebrated shortly after.

“It was an awful tradition,” she said. “The fathers and families get to go celebrate and the mother lies in the hospital with the child. With the last one, I protested and we held the baptism later so I could celebrate with them too.”

This practise is common in predominantly Catholic regions such as Bavaria and parts of my family's state of North Rhine-Westphalia, where the speedy baptisms were initially conducted to ward off evil in times of higher infant mortality. The fear was that the newborn could be given the “evil eye.”

The tradition also dictates that if the baby does have to leave the house before the baptism, it must be hidden from view in a pram. The same goes for the newborn's laundry, because apparently that could be hexed too.

In northern Germany, where attitudes toward religion are slightly more relaxed, new parents have it a bit easier. There they celebrate their new baby with a Babypinkeln or “Baby pee” party – though it is still always after the birth. Family and friends gather and imbibe in honour of the newborn, much like the old North American tradition of handing out cigars. Traditionally, mothers convalesced while fathers gathered with friends, family and neighbours to toast the newborn. But like Oma's last child's baptism, today's Babypinkeln (a.k.a. Babybier or Pullerparty), is usually held once the mother and child are home to celebrate too.

With three months to go, I still plan to prepare ahead of time for Baby Devins' birth, but since we're in Germany, we'll celebrate as Germans do. I'll have to hold off on Schnapps until after the baby arrives, but I won't be worrying about my next plate of hot wings.

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