Superstitions abound regarding certain days, numbers, or objects. People fear that somehow Friday the 13th, black cats, broken mirrors, or ladders may have a hand in shaping the future. Most of these superstitions have murky, ancient origins and have been passed down from generation to generation.
Recent surveys show that superstition is alive and well in the Western world. One survey reported that 20 percent of Americans think it’s unlucky to walk under a ladder and 13 percent think a black cat crossing their path will bring bad luck.1 A survey in Britain found that 77 percent of those in the UK admit to being “at least a little superstitious” and 42 percent say that they are very or somewhat superstitious. How should Christians respond to these superstitions?
Let’s use Groundhog Day (February 2) as an example.2 Groundhog Day is a superstitious tradition that dates back to ancient times. February 2 occurs halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, so special significance was attached to this date. It seems that, even from early times, the weather on this day was thought to relate to the length of winter. The early European Christians adopted this tradition and called it Candlemas Day. On Candlemas Day, the local clergy would bless candles, and people would carry the candles home and place them in their windows. This day also carried with it the idea of the prognostication of the weather. An old English Candlemas poem reads as follows:
If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Winter has another flight.
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Winter will not come again.
In Scotland it was said, “If Candlemas Day is bright and clear, / There’ll be two winters in the year.”
A German poem also captures the idea of the weather being tied to February 2 and Candlemas Day:
For as the sun shines on Candlemas Day,
So far will the snow swirl until May.
For as the snow blows on Candlemas Day,
So far will the sun shine before May.
It appears that the Germans are responsible for coupling an animal (a hedgehog or badger) seeing its shadow with the Candlemas Day tradition.3 When they came to the New World, they carried these traditions with them. Since the state of Pennsylvania was settled largely by Germans, soon the prolific groundhog became associated with Candlemas Day to replace the European hedgehog or badger. The earliest American reference to weather-prognosticating groundhogs in association with this holiday is a diary entry in February of 1841 which reads, “Last Tuesday, the 2nd, was Candlemas day, the day on which, according to the Germans, the Groundhog peeps out of his winter quarters and if he sees his shadow he pops back for another six weeks nap, but if the day be cloudy he remains out, as the weather is to be moderate."
In 1887 a newspaper in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, popularized the idea, and it quickly caught on. Today, this small town holds a massive Groundhog Day celebration every year that attracts crowds of close to 40,000 to watch “Punxsutawney Phil” predict the weather. But, according to the National Climate Data Center, Phil has an accuracy rate of only 39%.
In Acts 17, we read about the Athenians who erected an altar “to the unknown god.” These men were so superstitious that they made an altar to a potential god so as to make sure that they didn't unintentionally offend someone they didn’t know about. Paul used this altar as a teaching opportunity to point them to the God that they did not know—the Creator of the universe. As a result of his preaching, some of the pagans turned from their idol worship to serve the Lord (Acts 17:34). As Christians, we need to take what is common to the culture and turn it into an opportunity to proclaim the gospel. Superstitions provide an entry point to talking about how we can have true peace when we know the Prince of Peace who “upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:3).
So how should Christians respond to superstitions such as Groundhog Day? Well, Groundhog Day can simply be a fun day to get out with family and enjoy the festivities. But superstitions, like this day, also provide a reminder for us of the sovereignty of God and an opportunity to point others to the gospel. God’s actions are not bound or controlled by what happens here on earth. Psalm 115:3 tells us, “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases,” and Job says, “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted” (Job 42:2). Just because a groundhog sees, or doesn’t see, his shadow makes no difference to the God who controls the weather (Psalms 135:7, 148:8; Luke 8:24–25) and who has created the laws and cycles that govern weather patterns. We need to stand on the authority of God’s Word when it says that he is the one who upholds the weather and who created the laws and weather cycles, not trust in silly superstitions. We need to base our thinking on God’s Word!
We need to base our thinking on God’s Word!
We can also use superstitions as a doorway to introducing the gospel. The next time a friend or coworker “knocks on wood” or avoids walking underneath a ladder, use it to segue to the gospel message. We do not need to fear superstition or participate in superstitious rituals to avoid bad luck, because we can know the sovereign God who is in control of the world. The same God who upholds the universe loves us and wants a personal relationship with us. We can know him because he sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to die in our place so that we could have eternal life by grace through faith (John 3:16). Now, that’s Good News to replace superstitious fear!
We also need to remember that Christians are not immune to superstitions either. Often, without even meaning to, we behave in a superstitious way. For example, if $6.66 pops up on a cash register while buying groceries, some Christians freak out and ask to pay another price. Christians might cross their fingers (to make a cross), an old Christian superstition, for good luck and protection. Or a bride might not want her groom to see her before the wedding so she doesn’t bring bad luck into the marriage.
Now, some of these things, or other similar practices, have become cultural traditions over the years or are just done in fun or jest or are perhaps intended to be practical advice. For example, avoiding walking under a ladder is a good idea, not because doing so will bring bad luck, but because it could be potentially dangerous to the person using the ladder or to the person walking under it. However, we often do these things routinely in a superstitious manner, without even thinking about it, and this is often little different from what the world does. We are influenced by the world and will often just add a Christian element or symbol to it. But what we need to do is start our thinking with God’s Word as our foundation.
In the same way that the weather is not controlled by a groundhog, so are the events of our daily lives not controlled by superstitious things such as mirrors, black cats, or ladders. Instead of trusting in manmade superstitions, we need to trust in our sovereign God who loves and cares for us and and we need to teach others to do the same.