Newsletter Signup | Subscribe to Magazine

Southern traditions and superstitions

A handy homeowner’s guide for keeping the supernatural at bay

The South is filled with family and cultural traditions. From what to eat to how to dress, there are expectations to be followed throughout the year. By no surprise, most of these modern-day traditions have deep roots in superstitions. Here is a collection of Southern traditions and their spooky history.


Haint blue

This might be the most popular superstition turned tradition. It started within the Gullah community, descendants of former African-American slaves. The people believed that haints – angry spirits trapped between the world of the living and the dead – would try to enter their houses. But spirits can’t cross water. So instead of building a moat around their house, they created watery pigments – the blue-green color we now know as haint blue – to paint the entry ways of their homes to confuse and trick the spirits into thinking they can’t enter. And as we all know, it’s also just a great color for decorating.

Other superstitions about how to keep evil spirits away include:
• Hanging glass bottles in trees to capture the spirits.
• If you don’t want to repaint your porch, a child’s dirty handprint will do the same thing.
• Never rock an empty rocking chair, it’s an invitation to the spirits (it can also cause you to fall ill).


New Year’s meal

If you want to have a good year in the South, you better make sure to eat right on New Year’s Day. Your meal should include collard greens (for money), black-eyed peas (for luck) and pork (for prosperity). It is believed this tradition started during the Civil War after the Union Army raided Confederate food supplies, leaving only black-eyed peas and salted pork for the animals. The Confederate soldiers found this fortunate since they were still able to eat. While there is no set way to prepare any of the food, some say you have to eat exactly 365 peas if you want the luck to work. However, these days this is followed more out of tradition rather than fear.

Other superstitions about New Year’s Day:
• Cleaning your house will sweep away all your good luck for the year.
• Washing your clothes is equivalent to washing away a loved one.
• The first guest you have will signify the year for your household. For good luck, have your first guest be a tall, dark-haired man.


Mirrors

Using a mirror for a porch decoration is something primarily found in the South, and it’s historically connected to our desire to protect ourselves from evil spirits. Similar to protecting your home with haint blue, putting a mirror on your porch can prevent the devil from entering your home. The belief is the devil can only enter at night, and at sunrise, must go back to hell. If he comes across a mirror, he will spend the whole night looking at the mirror, forgetting his original intent until the sun comes up. While the origin of this belief is debated, some say it is because of the devil’s vanity. He enjoys looking at himself. Others believe he invented mirrors and is admiring his work.

Other mirror superstitions:
• When someone dies, all the mirrors in a house must be covered so the spirit doesn’t get trapped in them.
• Seeing your reflection in a room where someone has recently died will cause your death to be premature.
• The widely popular Bloody Mary, a spirit conjured to reveal the future. She is said to appear in a mirror when her name is chanted repeatedly.


Wedding attire

As if weddings aren’t stressful enough, there are dozens of unspoken rules for how the bride is to be dressed on her big day. Everyone has heard the saying “something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue,” but Southern brides know they also need pearls to complete the look. It’s said that wearing pearls promises harmony in the marriage and that brides who get married without pearls are doomed to a marriage filled with arguments.

Some other superstitions to promise the best wedding and marriage:
• Bury bourbon one month before your big day to ensure good weather.
• Getting a knife as a gift means the relationship will be severed.
• Finding a spider on your wedding dress is the best omen a bride can receive.


Strange and popular

While those superstitions are the most Southern in nature and origin, here are some other strange and popular superstitions believed in the South, some which have also become tradition.
• Wash your hair in the first rain of May to make it grow faster.
• Never eat both ends of a loaf of bread before finishing the middle, otherwise you won’t be able to make ends meet.
• Hold your breath while passing a cemetery, otherwise someone who has recently deceased will try to enter your body.
• Wearing new clothes on Easter Sunday will bring good luck.
• If you invite 13 people over for dinner, one of them will have bad luck.
• When walking with someone else, never allow the plane between you to be broken by a pole or post. It will bring bad luck and potentially sever the relationship. Say “bread and butter” if you do.


‘Don’t let de hag ride ya’

In hoodoo, it is believed one’s soul returns to God after death; however, their spirit may still remain on Earth. Spirits can interact with the world by providing good fortune or bringing bad deeds. A spirit that torments the living is known as a boo hag.

According to the legend, boo hags are similar to vampires. Unlike vampires, they gain sustenance from a person’s breath, as opposed to their blood, by riding their victims. They have no skin and thus are red. In order to be less conspicuous, they steal a victim’s skin and use it for as long as it holds out, wearing it as one might wear clothing. They remove and hide this skin before going riding.

When a hag determines a victim is suitable for riding, the hag generally gains access to the home through a small crack, crevice or hole. The hag then positions itself over the sleeping victim, sucking in their breath. This act renders the victim helpless and induces a deep dream-filled sleep.

The hag leaves the victim alive, so as to use them again for their energy. However, if the victim struggles, the hag may take their skin, leaving the victim to suffer. After taking the victim’s energy, the hag flies off, as they must be in their skin by dawn or be forever trapped without skin. When the victim awakes, they may feel short of breath, but generally the victim only feels tired. The phrase “don’t let de hag ride ya” has been commonly used in parts of the Lowcountry.