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Old Time Customs
Memories and Traditions and Other Essays
Signs and Charms


OUR FATHERS often mistook co-incidences for premonitions and made unwarranted generalization through what logicians call an "undistributed middle term." A flock of geese walking along a street in single file was regarded as a sign of death in a house they happened to pass. These water-loving birds would probably be making for a brook or pond with the gander acting as leader and the various members of his family falling into line according to some law of precedence in the procession best known to themselves.

Other forebodings of evil of the same sort were based on the ticking of a small insect called a wood-louse, and the "winding sheet," on the tallow candle, formed by the overflow of melted tallow which had accumulated around the wick and cooled in crinkles as it ran down. Thirteen at table, fearful omen of evil, made one shudder. The spilling of salt was nearly as woeful.

Charms, resembling the fetishes of Central Africa, imply the idea of an indwelling deity or supernatural power in some natural object, by which one may be guarded against evil, as witchcraft, disease or accident, or may become positively enriched by some blessing. The object in which this power is supposed to reside may be an amulet worn as an ornament or it may be a bit of bone or wood, a stone or a gem, and its use may be connected with an incantation or formula of words. The following are examples of charms once common and which may still be used in some places:

A horse-shoe placed over the door to prevent the entrance of witches on churning day. Warts rubbed with a candle were supposed to disappear when the candle was burned. Cut as many notches in a piece of red-pith elder as you have warts; rub the warts with the stick; throw away the stick and forget about the warts. Some day you look for them, and behold they are gone! To guard against rheumatism carry in your pocket a horse-chestnut, or a haddock bone.

Weather signs were many and mysterious,—and, in truth, some of them now and then fulfilled themselves with marvellous accuracy. The moon—or the man who makes his home in this nocturnal luminary—seemed to be regarded as the chief controlling agent in these matters. Regardless of the fact that the moon in its waxing and waning is changing equally every day, the periods marked in the almanac were the precise dates for changes in the weather. Corn, cucumbers and other crops liable to be destroyed by late frosts must be planted at such time as not to expose their tender shoots at the time of a full moon that might happen late in May or early in June. It may be here noted that this supposed law of the full moon regarding frosts still persists, although no one seems to have verified it by actual written records.

Other old time rules of action based on the power of the moon seem to be forgotten. Peas and some other crops to ensure a full yield were sown during the waxing period of this satellite—that is between new and full moon. Beef cattle and fattened hogs required to be butchered at this period, otherwise the meat, would "shrink in the pot"— there would be less of it when cooked. These old-time faiths have largely gone out of fashion in our degenerate age. It may be observed, too, that Belcher's Almanac, adopting the infidelity of the times, records historic facts in place of prognostications on the weather.


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