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20 Traditional Gift-Giving Superstitions

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The holiday season is a time for giving, but one thing you really don’t want to give is the gift of bad luck. To guard against any gift-related mishaps, take heed of the following 20 old-fashioned gift-giving superstitions. (We’ve included some tips for lucky gift-giving, too.)

1. KNIVES AND SCISSORS

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Giving anything sharp, such as a knife or scissors, is bad luck, as it’s thought to sever the relationship. However, the damage can be mitigated if the receiver gives something small, like a coin, in return, to make the exchange a transaction. Some folklorists err on the side of caution and also recommend repeating the rhyme: “If you love me, as I love you, no knife can cut our love in two.”

2. HANKIES

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Some gift-giving superstitions are quite literal—giving a handkerchief is said to signify tears to come. In Sweden, a man is never supposed to give his lover a silk handkerchief, or she will wipe away her affection for him. Soap is also supposed to be an unlucky gift, as it will wash your friendship away.

3. OPALS

Opal
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Opals are considered one of the most unlucky gemstones, and so should be avoided as a gift unless the receiver was born in October (the birthstone month for opal), in which case its negative vibes will be reversed. Never set an opal in an engagement ring, as it portends early widowhood.

4. SHOES

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Giving someone a new pair of shoes is unlucky, although strangely it is also said to prolong their life. It is very bad luck to gives shoes as a Christmas present, as it is thought to signify that the receiver will walk away from you. However, if you never give anyone a gift of shoes, it means that you will be doomed to go shoeless in the afterlife. Tough choice.

5. CATS

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In Sicily, it’s said you should never give a gift in the shape of a cat to someone who is engaged to be married, as this foretells sudden and violent death. However, in other cultures, if your partner gives you an actual cat as a present it means you will never be parted.

6. PORTRAITS

Two visitors look at Marten and Oopjen, two Rembrandt portraits of a wedding couple
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Bad news for ego-maniacs and narcissists: Receiving a present with your own likeness on it is bad luck, and to receive a portrait of yourself is a sign of treachery.

7. GIVING A GIFT BACK

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It is unlucky to give a gift and then afterwards take it back again. An old rhyme warns: “Give a thing and take it back, Old Nick will give your head a crack.” Another says: “Give a thing and take again, And you shall ride in hell’s wain.” (Wain is a word for a wagon or cart.)

8. COAL

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In old English tradition it is lucky to put a lump of coal among the Christmas presents in the stocking. The recipient should then spit on it, throw it into the fire and make a wish as it burns, and that wish will come true.

9. BAD LUCK COLORS

Red book
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The color of a gift can be significant. Giving or receiving black items is said to always be bad luck, as the color black brings death with it. You’re also never supposed to give a book with a red cover, as it is sure to break a friendship, because red is the color of anger and misunderstanding.

10. ROSES

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In the Victorian era, roses were an especially popular gift between lovers, as they were associated with secret passions. Different colored roses imparted different meanings—for example a red rose was given to show passion, and white roses to symbolize purity. It was important not to give a rose of the "wrong" color.

11. EMERALDS

emerald ring on green satin
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Emeralds were traditionally thought to be found in the nests of griffins (a mythological creature that’s part-lion and part-eagle), and to give the bearer protection from evil. Giving an emerald confers luck, happiness, and success—unless it is given on a Monday, in which case the luck is lost. If a man gives his lover an emerald as a gift, it can also be used to divine the strength of their love. If the emerald grows paler in color, then their love is decreasing, but if the emerald becomes a deeper green, it means love is flourishing.

12. FLOWERS

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Giving flowers is always a lovely gift, but if you are gifted cut flowers, never say thank you—it’s bad luck. Giving white lilac to a sick person is especially unlucky and does not bode well for their recovery. However, if you give yellow flowers, you can shortly expect to receive a gift of some money.

13. GLOVES

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Giving gloves is bad luck, and if you give them to a friend it means you will have a fight. Likewise, giving or accepting a gift with the left hand will result in a loss of friendship.

14. PARSLEY

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Parsley is especially difficult to germinate, and so gardeners would traditionally make three sowings, two for the devil and one for the gardener. It is also said to flourish if you swear profusely while planting it. As a consequence, giving parsley to a friend is inadvisable, as it portends bad luck or death. If a friend really covets your parsley, rather than giving them the plants, it is better to just let them “steal” the herb to prevent any bad luck from being passed on.

15. TURQUOISE

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If you have been struggling over what to get for your mother-in-law, look no further. Give the semi-precious gem turquoise, which is supposed to remove any animosity between giver and receiver.

16. PEACOCK FEATHERS

Peacock feather
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Peacock feathers should never be given as gifts, as it is extremely unlucky to have one inside the house—it invokes the magic of the evil eye. Umbrellas and mirrors are also unlucky gifts as they will cause an estrangement.

17. METAL

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Be careful about what metal that gift is made from. Presents made from pewter or zinc are omens of long life and happiness, whereas a present made of tin foretells mischief.

18. CORAL

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Gifts of coral necklaces for children will protect them from harm. It is said that red coral will turn pale if its owner becomes ill and return to full color as they recover.

19. PURSE

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If you give someone a purse or wallet, it is important to make sure you put at least one coin inside it. This will ensure the purse will never be empty and signifies future wealth.

20. SPREAD THE LOVE

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Gifts should not just be given to friends and family; the luck of the household can be preserved by extending generosity to visitors. To protect a household from the mischief of fairies, it is wise to leave out gifts of food or salt to preserve their good feeling. It is also lucky to give gifts to any visiting carol singers.

Sources: The Little Giant Encyclopedia of Superstitions; A Dictionary of Superstitions; The Encyclopedia of Superstitions; The Cassell Dictionary of Folklore; Encyclopedia of Superstitions, Folklore and Occult Sciences.

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Big Questions
What Happened to the Physical Copy of the 'I Have a Dream' Speech?
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On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and gave a speech for the ages, delivering the oratorical masterpiece "I Have a Dream" to nearly 250,000 people.

When he was done, King stepped away from the podium, folded his speech, and found himself standing in front of George Raveling, a former Villanova basketball player who, along with his friend Warren Wilson, had been asked to provide extra security around Dr. King while he was speaking. "We were both tall, gangly guys," Raveling told TIME in 2003. "We didn't know what we were doing but we certainly made for a good appearance."

Moved by the speech, Raveling saw the folded papers in King’s hands and asked if he could have them. King gave the young volunteer the speech without hesitation, and that was that.

“At no time do I remember thinking, ‘Wow, we got this historic document,’” Raveling told Sports Illustrated in 2015. Not realizing he was holding what would become an important piece of history in his hands, Raveling went home and stuck the three sheets of paper into a Harry Truman biography for safekeeping. They sat there for nearly two decades while Raveling developed an impressive career coaching NCAA men’s basketball.

In 1984, he had recently taken over as the head coach at the University of Iowa and was chatting with Bob Denney of the Cedar Rapids Gazette when Denney brought up the March on Washington. That's when Raveling dropped the bomb: “You know, I’ve got a copy of that speech," he said, and dug it out of the Truman book. After writing an article about Raveling's connection, the reporter had the speech professionally framed for the coach.

Though he displayed the framed speech in his house for a few years, Raveling began to realize the value of the piece and moved it to a bank vault in Los Angeles. Though he has received offers for King’s speech—one collector wanted to purchase the speech for $3 million in 2014—Raveling has turned them all down. He has been in talks with various museums and universities and hopes to put the speech on display in the future, but for now, he cherishes having it in his possession.

“That to me is something I’ll always be able to look back and say I was there,” Raveling said in the original Cedar Rapids Gazette article. “And not only out there in that arena of people, but to be within touching distance of him. That’s like when you’re 80 or 90 years old you can look back and say ‘I was in touching distance of Abraham Lincoln when he made the Gettysburg Address.’"

“I have no idea why I even asked him for the speech,” Raveling, now CEO of Coaching for Success, has said. “But I’m sure glad that I did.”

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Live Smarter
3 Reasons Why Your New Year's Resolutions Fail—and How to Fix Them
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You don’t need a special day to come up with goals, but New Year’s Day is as good a time as any to build better habits. The problem is, by the time February rolls around, our best laid plans have often gone awry. Don’t let it happen this year: Heed these three simple tips for fail-proof resolutions.

PROBLEM 1: THEY’RE TOO OVERWHELMING

Let’s say your goal is to pay off $5000 worth of credit card debt this year. Since you're giving yourself a long timeframe (all year) to pay it down, you end up procrastinating or splurging, telling yourself you’ll make up for it later. But the longer you push it off, the bigger and more overwhelming your once-reasonable goal can feel.

Solution: Set Smaller Milestones

The big picture is important, but connecting your goal to the present makes it more digestible and easier to stick with. Instead of vowing to pay off $5000 by the end of next December, make it your resolution to put $96 toward your credit card debt every week, for example.

In a study from the University of Wollongong, researchers asked subjects to save using one of two methods: a linear model and a cyclical model. In the linear model, the researchers told subjects that saving for the future was important and asked them to set aside money accordingly. In contrast, they told the cyclical group:

This approach acknowledges that one’s life consists of many small and large cycles, that is, events that repeat themselves. We want you to think of the personal savings task as one part of such a cyclical life. Make your savings task a routinized one: just focus on saving the amount that you want to save now, not next month, not next year. Think about whether you saved enough money during your last paycheck cycle. If you saved as much as you wanted, continue with your persistence. If you did not save enough, make it up this time, with the current paycheck cycle.

When subjects used this cyclical model, focusing on the present, they saved more than subjects who focused on their long-term goal.

PROBLEM 2: THEY'RE TOO VAGUE

“Find a better job” is a worthy goal, but it's a bit amorphous. It's unclear what "better" means to you, and it’s difficult to plot the right course of action when you’re not sure what your desired outcome is. Many resolutions are vague in this way: get in shape, worry less, spend more time with loved ones.

Solution: Make Your Goal a SMART One

To make your goal actionable, it should be SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound. When you set specific parameters and guidelines for your goal, it makes it easier to come up with an action plan. Under a bit more scrutiny, "spend more time with loved ones" might become "invite my best friends over for dinner every other Sunday night." This new goal is specific, measurable, time-bound—it ticks all the boxes and tells you exactly what you want and how to get there.

PROBLEM 3: YOU FELL FOR THE “FALSE FIRST STEP”

“A false first step is when we try to buy a better version of ourselves instead of doing the actual work to accomplish it,” Anthony Ongaro of Break the Twitch tells Mental Floss. “The general idea is that purchasing something like a heart rate monitor can feel a lot like we're taking a step towards our fitness goals,” Ongaro says. “The purchase itself can give us a dopamine release and a feeling of satisfaction, but it hasn't actually accomplished anything other than spending some money on a new gadget.”

Even worse, sometimes that dopamine is enough to lure you away from your goal altogether, Ongaro says. “That feeling of satisfaction that comes with the purchase often is good enough that we don't feel the need to actually go out for a run and use it.”

Solution: Start With What You Already Have

You can avoid this trap by forcing yourself to start your goal with the resources you already have on hand. “Whether the goal is to learn a new language or improve physical fitness, the best way to get started and avoid the false first step is to do the best you can with what you already have,” Ongaro says. “Start really small, even learning one new word per day for 30 days straight, or just taking a quick walk around the block every day.”

This isn’t to say you should never buy anything related to your goal, though. As Ongaro points out, you just want to make sure you’ve already developed the habit a bit first. “Establish a habit and regular practice that will be enhanced by a product you may buy,” he says. “It's likely that you won't even need that gadget or that fancy language learning software once you actually get started ... Basically, don't let buying something be the first step you take towards meaningful change in your life.”

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