Occasionally one must, of necessity, walk under a ladder, and the mirror handled hastily falls to the floor and breaks in a dozen pieces. But it takes a brave soul to deliberately plan a dinner party for Friday the 13th.
Of all the superstitions with which we surround ourselves -- ranging from hopping over breaks in the sidewalk (step on a crack/you'll break your mother's back) to tossing spilt salt over the left shoulder -- perhaps the most universally held is the belief that Friday the 13th is an unlucky day.
Maybe instead of curling up on a bed of four-leaf clovers, rabbit's foot clutched in hand, one should plan a gathering for this most feared of days. When things go wrong, as they so often do when we set out to amuse and entertain our friends, they can be blamed on the forces set free on this deadly day. Has the steak tumbled off the grill and landed in the coals? It was undoubtedly pushed by witches, who are taking advantage of the fact that the last time you ate an egg you neglected to take up your knife and smash the shell one, two, three times.
If you were to give a party encouraging superstition, you could trot out all the things that have irrationally dominated your own life and find out the spurs that goad your friends.
How many really believe that if your nose itches you will kiss a fool and that if that itchy sensation moves down to your palm you're destined to come into money? When guests leave your dinner table, do they conscientiously crumple their napkins, knowing that to fold them neatly means that they will never return to your house? Are they aware that a loaf of bread placed upside down guarantees misfortune, just as a new loaf, offered as a housewarming gift, spells happiness in the home?
Or that the person who drains the wine bottle will be married within a year? Francis Bacon was convinced that in order to prolong life, one should, at suppertime, take a glass of wine in which gold had been quenched, and though we have given up dropping nuggets into the burgundy, everyone has some superstition that sneaks into their life.
Make your Friday the 13th dinner a time to kiss and tell. I have one friend whose windowsill holds a neat row of lined up, dried up wishbones, ready for the moment when only a wish will do. And another who, on pulling a bill from his wallet to pay a check, also pulled out a faded slip from a fortune cookie promising a favorable future. (And how many take seriously the stricture that if the fortune is to come true, one must take at least a bite of the cardboard cookie?)
What is their position on pins? Did they grow up believing it necessary, when passing through a tunnel, to make a long, full-breathed whoop that lasted until they once more emerged into daylight? If they grew up in New York, how in heaven's name did they manage this? Were they warned never ever to breathe while passing a cemetery, lest the devil steal their souls?
Many of the small and batty beliefs that invade otherwise rational men have been around for hundreds of years -- like the lucky horseshoe tacked over a door (another ploy to discourage witches who at one time were seen to be as numerous as a crowd of Hollywood extras, a hash of hags bent on malice and mischief).
Other superstitions survive only in old books so that few of your guests will confess to believing that, "There are found in the North parts of Scotland and the islands adjacent, called Orchades, certaine trees whereon do grow certaine shells of a white colour tending to russett," as Gerard in 1597 informed the readers of his Historie of Plants, "wherein are contained little living things, which shells in time of maturitie do open, and out of them do grow those little living creatures, which falling in the water do become fowles, which we call Barnackles . . . " This common belief as to the origin of barnacle geese served a practical purpose in an age when fast days, on which no meat could be eaten, took up almost half of the year. These mysterious, tree-grown, water-hatched geese were conveniently classified as fish, not flesh, and could be eaten on fast days.
After each guest has confided the superstition that rules his or her life, it will be time to take coffee and brandy into the living room, where in a dim and shadowy light, Friday the 13th can be ushered out with a series of spine-tingling stories about things that we all know do not exist but which nevertheless go bump in the night.