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Home : The History of the Wishbone Tradition

The History of the Wishbone Tradition

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Maybe you've had a friend try it or heard about a friend of a friend doing it at their reception -- the wishbone tradition has recently become a huge hit at weddings and other gatherings. And now, thanks to the modern arrival of synthetic plastic wishbones, you don't need a Medieval-style turkey massacre to get everyone in on the fun! But even in its new bird-friendly form, the wishbone superstition is a very old one. In fact, people have been wishing on those oh-so breakable bones for nearly 2500 years!

But where did the tradition come from? How did it start in the first place? Was it always for good luck? Well, to answer these questions we did a little digging to bring you this report on why you just might be one lucky break away from making your wishes come true!

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The Weird World of Hen Oracles

Believe it or not, the wishbone tradition began with a chicken, not a turkey as we commonly think of it today. It all started around 320 BC with the ancient Etruscans, who at the time were a band of loose-knit tribes living in Italy near what is now Tuscany. These tribes, whose most lasting influences were on Roman architecture and for giving us some of the oldest words in the English language, believed that chickens had the ability to tell the future. The reason? They noticed that hens had a tendency to squawk just before laying an egg and roosters would crow each morning just before sunrise. Sure, neither event may rate as a major prophecy, but hens and roosters both became important Etruscan symbols of wisdom and foresight.

The Origin of the Word "Wishbone"

Eventually these symbols evolved into the concept of "hen oracles." When an Etruscan had an important question that needed answered, he or she could draw a circle on the ground that was divided into wedge-shaped sections. Within each wedge would be written a letter from the Etruscan alphabet. Grains were then placed in each section, and the all-knowing chicken would be led into the circle to eat. The order in which the hen pecked at the grain was recorded by a scribe and interpreted by high priests -- it was believed the fowl was either spelling out words or giving clues to a mystical message.

These hens may have been able to see the future for other people, but not for themselves. After choosing letters and eating what was essentially a last meal, each hen would be sacrificed and its collarbone hung out in public to dry. This bone was considered sacred, and anyone who wanted to was allowed to stroke an unbroken bone and make a wish. It is from this practice that we get the name "wishbone."

The Start of Competitive Wishing

Lucky Break So where did the wishbone tradition get its competitive element? Over time the Etruscans were absorbed into the Roman Empire, which took on many Etruscan gods and traditions, including the wishbone, for its own. Greedy individual Romans, however, would try to keep the wishbone (and hence all the luck) for themselves. This led to so many fights it forced Roman society into something of a compromise. It was eventually agreed that two people could pull on either side of a bone and whoever was left holding the biggest piece after it broke would get to keep the luck!

In case you were wondering, this is also the origin of the expression "lucky break."

From Chickens to Turkeys

This symbolism, and countless "friendly" competitions, continued through the centuries, eventually making its way to England and even to the New World with the first Puritan settlers. Chickens, however, were a rarity in the New World while wild turkeys were plentiful in the woods, which is why today we associate breaking the wishbone with the turkey.

Since turkey is considered a major holiday dish in the US, the tradition is now most often associated with Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Turkeys neither squawk before laying eggs nor crow just before sunrise, so in a way it's a little ironic that turkeys lack the very qualities that caused the Etruscans to exalt the chicken as a prognosticating bird. Nonetheless, the turkey has been cemented the world over as the best source for the wishbone. The rest, as they say, is history!

Want more fun superstitions for your wedding day? Give yourself an extra helping of good luck and read our Guide to the Most Popular Wedding Superstitions -- our free road map to some important supernatural do's and don'ts for your big day!

How To Make the Tradition Part of Your Wedding

How lucky wishbones work at weddings, wedding showers, or even non-wedding gatherings is pretty simple. Give each couple a pair of wishbones; one to keep for themselves and one to make a wish for the bride and groom. If you're holding a business meeting or other gathering, simply have everyone pair off into teams of two.

Start Anytime After Dinner

At your wedding you can hold the wishbone tradition at any time during the celebration. We've found it tends to work best shortly before or after the garter and bouquet tossing traditions, once everyone's finished eating and everyone's attention is focused. No matter which moment you choose, have your DJ or designated emcee announce, "It's time to make a wish!" This is also a great time to explain a little of the history behind the tradition.

Make Up Some House Rules

What happens next is pretty self-explanatory, but feel free to lay down a couple ground "rules" like requesting that wishes be made for the bridal couple. We're particularly fond of requesting that each person makes a wish for whoever is holding the other end of the wishbone (also a nice way to cut down on arguments among some of your younger or more superstition-prone guests). After the celebration you can collect the broken wishbones, if you want, and save them in a keepsake box as a testament to all the love and good wishes from your family and friends!

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