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Friday the 13th: Eight strange superstitions that Germans hold dearly

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Lucinda Watts - [email protected]
Friday the 13th: Eight strange superstitions that Germans hold dearly
A chimney sweep (Schornsteinfeger in German) in a pedestrian zone in Wernigerode, Saxony-Anhalt in October 2021. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Matthias Bein

October 13th marks the infamous 'Friday the 13th', so we thought we’d take a look at some German superstitions - and how to get some good luck.

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1. Spit on your fellow actors' shoulders before a play

Theatres are famously superstitious places, and theatres in Germany are no different. British and American thespians cheerily tell each other to "break a leg" before the premiere to avoid bad luck, but Germans take it a little further and spit on each other's left shoulders.

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Make sure you only do so once you're in costume though. or it won't work. And at the same time you have to say: "Toi Toi Toi."

2. Pressing your thumbs
 
While English speakers cross their fingers for luck, Germans hold their thumbs or "drücken die Daumen". This appears to come from the days of ancient Rome and gladiator fighting where the emperor would indicate whether the losing fighter was to be executed (thumbs up means sword out and the man dies) or not (thumb hidden means sword sheathed and the man lives).

3. Never give knives as gifts

Giving a German knives as a gift means that you're cutting through the friendship, so make sure you steer clear when looking for a house-warming present. And avoid gifting your lover shoes, too. It is said that if they then run away it is your fault.

4. Never wish someone a happy birthday before the actual day

A birthday cake sits on a kitchen table.

A birthday cake sits on a kitchen table. Photo: Richard Burlton/Unsplash

In other parts of the world, wishing someone happy birthday before the actual day is considered pretty normal. If you're not going to see that person on the day or just because you might forget, you say happy birthday in advance. In Germany, however, this is widely considered to bring bad luck, even if the birthday wishes are only a few minutes early. 

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The tradition of "reinfeiern" in Germany or literally "celebrating into" is when guests gather the evening before someone's birthday to celebrate, and wish the birthday boy or girl a happy birthday, in stereotypical German fashion, precisely when the clock strikes midnight.
 
5. Always make eye contact during toasts

Whenever you clink glasses with anyone, always remember to maintain eye contact or you could be cursed with bad sex. Regardless of who you're with or what you're drinking, bear this in mind as the curse lasts for seven years.

Nobody really knows where this superstition comes from, but some say that it could date back to the middle ages when poisoning was very common. Eye contact was supposed to establish trust between hosts and guests that nothing was poisoned but the consequences would've been slightly worse than a few years of bad sex, namely death.

6. Never light cigarettes from candles

Given that you can't smoke in many public spaces anymore and the fact that candles and matches have been replaced by lighters as the preferred method of lighting cigarettes, you probably won't break this rule anytime soon. Good thing too, as it is said that every time you do, a sailor dies.

The reason for this superstition is actually quite logical as in olden days sailors used to make matches to tide them over in the winter months when they couldn't go out to sea. Therefore, by using a candle instead of a match, you were robbing sailors of their temporary living.

7. Always knock on the table when you sit down in a pub

A glass of beer stands on a table in an empty bar in the city in Oberhausen, western Germany, on October 29, 2020 (Photo by Ina FASSBENDER / AFP)

Whenever you arrive at a pub or bar, you should always knock twice on the table. Why? To show your friends that you aren't the devil of course!

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According to legend, the Stammtisch, the regular's table in the tavern, was traditionally made of oak which the devil was unable to touch as the tree was holy. Knocking on the table proved you weren't the devil in disguise. It is always good to be sure after all.

8. Being touched by a chimney sweep

If you have broken one of these rules and garnered some bad luck along the way, then perhaps consider befriending your local chimney sweep to put yourself in the clear of any unfortunate accidents.
 
Chimney sweeps are considered lucky as their services meant people could cook food again after having blocked chimneys and also reduced the risk of the house burning down. And if you get ash from a chimney sweep in your face, it's considered lucky.

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