November 19, 2020 - I vividly recall a “ritual” that we kids performed after the Thanksgiving and Christmas meals back in my early years. This activity was passed down to our children but seems to have been lost to the current crop of kids.
I recall my mother announcing to we kids after dinner was over, “Here’s the wish bone. Who wants it?” Instantly there would be a flurry of activity toward that “Y” shaped bone garnered from the breast of the turkey amid cries of “I want to pull it this year,” or “It’s my turn. You did it last year.” Eventually, things would be worked down to the two lucky ones who got to make a wish and pull the wish bone until it broke. The holder of the longer piece was the “winner” whose wish would magically come true.
I am sure that the same ritual was played out in millions of homes each year. Thanksgiving is a North American holiday of recent vintage, whereas the breaking of the wishbone comes to us from Europe. It was a tradition dating back thousand of years.
A bird’s wishbone is technically known as the furcula (meaning “little fork” in Latin). It is formed by the fusion of two clavicles, and is important to flight because of its elasticity, and the tendons that attach to it. We humans have a similar bone known as “collarbones”. The question before us is - where did the custom of making a wish and then snapping the bone originate, and how did it get to America?
Research reveals that the custom came to us from the English, who got it from the Romans, who got it from the Etruscans, an ancient Italian civilization. As far as historians and archaeologists can discover, the Etruscans were really into their fowls, especially chickens. In fact, many believed that the birds were oracles and could predict the future. They exploited the chickens’ supposed gifts by turning them into walking Ouija boards with a bizarre ritual known as “rooster divination.”
They would draw a circle on the ground and divide it into wedges representing the letters of the Etruscan alphabet. Bits of food were scattered on each wedge and a chicken was placed in the center of the circle. As the bird snacked, scribes would note the sequence of letters that it pecked at, and the local priests would use the resulting messages to divine the future and answer the city’s most pressing questions.
When a chicken was killed, the furcula was laid out in the sun to dry so that it could be preserved, and the people would still have access to the oracle’s power even after its demise. People would pick up the bone, stroke it, and make wishes on it, hence the modern name of “wishbone.”
As the Romans crossed paths with the Etruscans, they adopted some of their customs, including alectryomancy and making wishes on the furcula. According to tradition, the Romans went from merely petting the bones to breaking them because of supply and demand. There weren’t enough bones to go around for everyone to wish on, so two people would wish on the same bone and then break it to see who got the larger piece and their wish.
As the Romans traipsed around Europe, they left their cultural mark in many different places, including the British Isles. People living in England at the time adopted the wishbone custom, and it eventually came to the New World with English settlers, who began using the turkey’s wishbone as well as the chicken’s.
Pilgrims who immigrated to the United States are believed to have brought the tradition with them. Once discovering that the wild turkeys populating their new home possessed wishbones just like the fowl from home, the wishbone tradition became a part of the Thanksgiving celebration. Let us hope that the modern generation will not let it die completely. It has come a long way and deserves to entertain children of today’s generation as it has so many others.