One of my most recent pieces was inspired by Victorian Christmas cards. Apparently, it was quite popular, in the late 1800s, to send your friends and family a Christmas card with a message of good tidings and a picture of a dead bird. Many speculate that the Victorians were simply morbid folk who were obsessed with death. But a bit of digging into Irish and British customs during this time reveal that this dead bird obsession had a bit more substance to it.
A little bit of internet searching brought me to a Wikipedia page about “Wren Day.” This is an Irish tradition in which a bird (typically a wren) is killed and mounted on a stick as the highlight of holiday festivities (which includes costumes, dancing, music, and parades). Of course the modern version of this celebration (still celebrated in the Isle of Man) requires no actual sacrifice of our avian friends as a taxidermy bird is reused for this purpose. In this celebration the wren becomes a symbol of good fortune and good luck.
To our modern sensibilities, it might seem odd to send someone a picture of a dead bird in order to wish them good luck and well wishes. However, we don’t tend to put much thought into someone keeping a lucky rabbit’s foot, or pressing a dead four leaf clover into a book.
Being a very superstitious person, I do have a difficult time associating death with good luck. It is not because of the nature of death, but because I have many personal experiences in which death has been associated with unfortunate events. For example, I remember one year when I found a dead squirrel on the hood of my car. I suspect that it died and fell out of the tree that was above the car. I immediately felt a sense of doom and I was very observant and careful for the next few days. Unfortunately, my fears were warranted and one of my cats died a very horrible death about two days after finding the squirrel remains.
It is not unusual for me to pick up on what I consider to be an “omen” for something yet to come. But I do spend a lot of time looking for confirmation of the omen over the next weeks. As soon as the terrible event happens, it reinforces my prediction. For example, I hold the superstition that deaths come in threes. (I learned recently that this superstition may be unique to growing up in New England as my Midwestern acquaintances do not share this superstition.) This superstition does encourage me to look for multiples after the first death. My pessimistic nature probably does not help one bit.
It is the development of superstitions within the individual, and not necessarily the history of particular superstitions, which fascinate me. Our brains are peculiar organs which look for patterns in our environments to explain that which we cannot control. I will address this research in more detail in a future blog post (or a zine if I ever get around to putting one together).