2500 years ago, the Etruscans, who lived in what is now Italy, believed the breastbone of a chicken, called the furcula or “little fork”, had magic predictive powers. They transferred that belief to the Romans, who carried it with them to the British Isles.
In England, the legend became associated with turkeys as well as chickens. When the English colonists came to North America, they brought the tradition with them. According to the legend that has grown up in America over the past 400 years, if two people pull the ends of the wishbone until it breaks, the person left holding the longer piece will have his or her wish granted.
I remember my sister and I would save the wishbone from the Thanksgiving turkey and put it on the window sill in the kitchen to dry. After about a week, when it was nice and brittle, we would each make a wish, then repeat the time honored magic incantations before pulling the wishbone apart. The grammatically incorrect litany goes like this:
(My sister) What color is the grass? (Me) Green.
(My sister) What goes up the chimney? (Me) Smoke.
(Together) May your wish and my wish never be BROKE!
Ideally, the wishbone would snap in two just as the word “broke” is spoken.
Opinions vary on how to hold the wishbone. Some people wrap their fingers around the ends and place their thumbs near the junction for extra leverage. That’s called “cheating”. Some hold the ends delicately between thumb and forefinger. And some pull the bone apart using only their pinkie fingers. That’s how it was done in my family.
Adults, of course, don’t often engage in such childish shenanigans, so I have not broken a wishbone in many years. But last month, as I was pulling the turkey apart on Thanksgiving Day, I found myself holding the wishbone and decided the time had come to share the legend with my oldest grandchild, Lillian.
When I picked her up from school a week later, I carefully explained the process to her. Like every child, she was enthralled by anything that smacked of magic. We rehearsed the script. We practiced our grips on the wishbone. And I dutifully cautioned her not to tell a single soul about her wish or else it wouldn’t come true.
Then, with all the pomp and circumstance I could muster, we pronounced the magic incantation and pulled. Our wishbone snapped into three equal pieces. which means we both got our wish.
Perhaps someday Lillian will share this ritual with her own children and grandchildren. If so, I will have a connection to generations as yet unborn. How cool is that? I only hope they are not all vegetarians by then!