Why do people knock on wood for good luck, or to keep something bad from happening? The most common use of the superstition seems to have started in Germanic or Celtic folklore. According to tradition, the gods or spirits that protected people lived in the trees, so knocking on a tree let them know a person needed protection. Simple enough. Knocking on wood helps to ward off evil. But, some Christians believe it comes from the original cross and believers that touched the wooden cross on which Jesus was crucified received good fortune. Over the years, it has evolved across the globe, usually with some sort of similar belief or reason for doing it.
- Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast
Today, the custom is most often used to avert bad luck or bad fortune after making a statement. For example, a person might say something like "I have to drive to Chicago, I hope I don't crash on the highway," then they would follow the statement by knocking or touching wood to avoid tempting fate. In the past, in England, it was used to when people told secrets, to ensure they stayed secret, but today it is used more like the Celtic tradition, as it is around the world.
There are many other reasons that the habit may have become part of everyday life for millions of people. In the early days of the United States, men would 'knock' the wooden butt of their muzzles to ensure the black powder would be evenly distributed. But contemporarily it's used like it is in most of the world, to thwart bad luck. Christians still see it in line with touching the original cross. In Spain, it is used to bring luck, not just avert bad. In the Middle East, it is used to ensure continued good fortune, when something good has happened or is spoken about: "They have a wonderful family."In Italy, there is a unique version of the superstition. After speaking of death or attending a funeral, it is considered expedient to "touch iron," in order to avoid death yourself. People take the superstition very seriously, holding up conversations until they can find a piece of wood to knock if they need to.
There are also different versions of what wood counts. In Romania, they knock wood, but wooden tables don't count for some reason. In Russia, the wood must be unpainted. In Asia, a person's head may replace wood, if there is no wood within an arm's length. This has picked up popularity elsewhere around the world, including the US. In the Czech Republic, one might tap his teeth instead of wood, something George Washington surely would have appreciated.
In the end, it's maybe impossible to know definitively how this practice came to be or how it spread so far and wide. Like most superstitions, it doesn't really make any sense in the context of the modern world, but that doesn't stop millions of people in every corner of the globe from believing in it. One thing that is for sure, it's because of this superstition that we have this awesome song and it's even more awesome video!
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