Superstitions cross many cultural lines

Oct. 27, 2010 at 5:27 a.m.

Victoria resident May Lee Sternadel is 59 years old.

But, if you ask her how old she is, she will tell you 60.

She will give you the wrong answer not because she is a deceptive person or because she thinks a lady should never reveal her true age, Sternadel, who is Chinese-American, tells people a false age because of her cultural beliefs.

"I don't say that I'm that number," said Sternadel, who owns May Lee's Chinese Restaurant. "The combination of five and nine together is bad."

Based on beliefs stemming from her Chinese culture, Sternadel, who has lived in America since 1976, hopes to make it to age 60 in December by avoiding saying the numbers together.

Known as superstitions, folklore or even old wives' tales, common beliefs such as this vary among different cultures and are, in many cases, widely adhered to today.

"There's only certain areas I feel strongly about," said Sternadel, who considers herself to be moderately superstitious. "It's been passed down from generations."

A recent Associated Press-IPSOS poll found that 1 in 5 people admit to being at least somewhat superstitious and the most likely admitted superstition was finding a four-leaf clover.

With roots based in cultural beliefs and some whose origins are unknown, said University of Houston-Victoria professor Paul Carlson, anthropologists have studied belief systems and cultural superstitions, as far back as the 19th Century.

Most superstitions are the result of speculation due to an absence of knowledge on a topic, said Carlson, who said that historically, most of the speculation was done by shamans, folk tellers and other tribal or kinship leaders.

Additionally, many organized religions can be construed as being superstitions because they often go against scientific and rational knowledge, said Carlson.

"Not all superstition is rooted in religion but all religion employs rituals and beliefs that are not completely rational and that could be called superstition," said Carlson. "If you do it, it's a superstition. If I do it, it's because I have faith."

Superstitions encompass a variety of topics including food, names, animals, child rearing, marriage and the positive and negative connotation of numbers.

In addition to combining the numbers five and nine, Sternadel said her culture believes in not marrying someone who is older or younger by three or six years of age and the negative repercussions of the number four.

"In China, all hotels or businesses will jump from three to five," said Sternadel.

The negative connotation of 13 also carries over into other cultures.

Many Hispanics never seat 13 people to a table, said Victoria College professor Gina Ramirez-Mere.

Ramirez-Mere said the history of this practice stems from Jesus' Last Supper where 13 disciples sat at the table, the 13th being Judas.

"A lot of people may say they don't believe in what Grandma says, but they're still not going to put 13 at a table, " said Ramirez-Mere.

The fear of the number 13 carries over into other Western cultures.

In addition to the absence of a 13th floor in many buildings, a number of Americans also suffer from friggatriskaidekaphobia, which is a fear of Friday the 13th.

Many cultures share similar superstitions.

Many blacks believe that cutting a baby's hair before his first birthday will lead to bad hair and/ or bad luck. A large number of Hispanics think cutting the hair of a child that age will impair the child's ability to speak.

"We all engage in it. It's one of those things that makes us inconsistent, irrational and creative," said Carlson. "It is a deeply human trait."

Belief in superstitions is often passed down through families.

Kayla Sheehan, 17, and Rebecca Sheehan, 19, said they have picked up superstitious traits such as knocking on wood from their mother, Memory Sheehan.

"I don't know why I do it. It's just something I do," said Memory Sheehan, who said she and her children have yet to adhere to her husband's practice of picking up his feet when going over a railroad track. "I guess I just picked it up from society."

Although Victoria resident Angela Barrientes, 23, does not consider herself to be superstitious, she said she is not taking any chances when her wedding day arrives, opting to forgo seeing her husband before the ceremony.

"I probably won't see him because a lot of people don't do it, even on TV shows," said Barrientes. "I'm just being cautious."

Despite a prevalent belief, many others continue to find superstitions unbelievable.

Rev. Fred Hobbs thinks there is a clear division between the ability to believe in superstitions and believe in Christianity.

"(Superstitions) are a tradition that man has come up with. It was sent down from Mama, Grandpa and all of them. You have to realize that Jesus Christ holds us in His hands. He's going to protect you, not superstition," said Hobbs, who is pastor of Mt. Nebo Baptist Church. "If something is going to happen, then it is because the Lord permitted it to happen, whether I crossed a black cat or not."



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