Why I glare at you when you whistle indoors: A guide to Ukrainian superstitions
I have a few friends who said their babas warned them to never whistle indoors, and as kids, they thought it was just because their grandmothers thought they were annoying.
But lo and behold, there’s more to it.
There’s a belief among Ukrainians (and other cultures) that if you whistle while indoors, you’ll bring upon yourself bad luck and lack of wealth.
That’s why you’ll see me stop myself mid-pucker if I hear a catchy tune indoors, instead resorting to singing or humming. It’s also why I may glare at you (or perhaps look away to pretend it’s not happening) when you whistle near me and we are clearly inside.
I followed some superstitions growing up. I’d knock on wood to ward off bad luck, cross my fingers when telling a white lie (don’t worry, usually only to my siblings), and peel an orange in one piece then put the peel on my head and make a wish — which may only be a Vitt thing, because whenever I’ve asked people about it they have no idea what I’m talking about. (I also did a quick search online and didn’t find anything about it, but if you’ve heard of this one, please comment below!)
I’m not saying I believe in all superstitions, that if I don’t follow one then I’ll be cursed for life. But living in Ukraine reintroduced me to the folk belief lifestyle. If we did something that may bring us bad luck, the people we were with would point it out to us, not necessarily saying they believe it, but rather as way to share Ukrainian culture with us.
I now find it hard to not follow the superstitions, or to at least think about them even if I’m breaking them. It’s become sort of a mindfulness practice, if you will, making me think about my actions — and notice actions of others — ensuring I’m living in the present moment.
Plus, any chance I get to think about the culture of my ancestors is a welcome opportunity.
And so, here is a list of some Ukrainian superstitions. There are waaaaaay more than the ones listed below, but I included ones that matched up with a story from my year in Ukraine.
Your Guide to Ukrainian Superstitions
1) Do not whistle indoors. It will scare off good fortune and wealth.
We heard this over and over, right from the start of our year. But while living in our last city, Poltava, someone told us a bit of a different take on this superstition. We went to a ceramics museum, and a worker gifted us with whistles.
She said some people gift whistles to children and say the only time they can use them indoors is to whistle in each corner of their home to protect it from evil spirits.
2) Do not throw your hair in the garbage (say, after cleaning a brush). Flush it down the toilet or burn it, otherwise you’ll be prone to headaches.
Kyrylo taught us this within our first days of our life in Ukraine. I tried to follow this after returning to Canada, but my mom saw me tossing my hair in the toilet once, and she suggested to perhaps not continue this as it would clog the drain.
I’ve been having headaches ever since.
(Juuuuust kidding, Mom. Sort of.)
3) If you step on someone’s heel while walking, they must step on yours back. Otherwise, you may fight in the future.
Someone told us this one, maybe a Cobblestone guide while showing us around, and we laughed it off, not knowing if they just said that because one of us stepped on them or if it was a real superstition.
Well, one day while walking the streets of one of our temporary hometowns, we saw a man step on another man’s heel, and the second guy quickly tapped his foot against the first guy, carrying on with his day, knowing he wouldn’t fight with this person in the future. Crisis averted.
Also, this all happened in approximately one second, after which us girls looked at each other with questioning eyes, wondering if we saw what we thought we saw.
4) If you are unmarried, do not sit at the corner of a table, otherwise you won’t marry for at least seven years.
Seeing as all of us were (and are, for that matter) unmarried, people brought this superstition up often, especially when we were invited to someone’s home for dinner, like for Christmas or Easter celebrations.
This was kind of hard to avoid, because we often made up the majority of the dining group, and a corner spot was inevitable. But we at least acknowledged the belief (and knocked on wood and crossed our fingers and put an orange peel on our head … or maybe not that last one).
5) If a woman eats the end of the loaf of bread, her husband will go bald. If the man eats the end, he will have good luck.
Another variation we learned at some point in our year is if you eat the bread end, you will be kissed.
In any case, it’s a great way to encourage people to eat bread ends, which so often go wasted.
6) Before leaving for a trip, sit down for a minute. It will bring you good luck on your journey.
When we moved to Lviv, Kyrylo from Cobblestone picked us up from our apartment in Kyiv. He had me and my roommate sit on the couch, reflecting on our time there and thanking the apartment for providing a safe home to us.
7) Do not wish people birthday wishes early. It is bad luck.
It would be quite funny, actually, how we would see people the day before their birthday and their friends would act all casually and not mention anything about birthdays, and then the next day BAM, full on celebration, with the most sincere toasts to the birthday person and drinks and food and song and dance.
Some of my favourite memories from Ukraine are celebrating birthdays.
We attended the party for a dancer of the Bukovyna ensemble, who invited us within the first couple days of meeting him, and the celebration felt more like a wedding (full meal, continuous drinks, dancing, karaoke) than a birthday. We gathered in the men’s changeroom of the Buko ensemble to honour the artistic director’s birthday with food, toasts, and songs. And after ending practice early, we created a makeshift table out of theatre chairs and a board in the Poltava ensemble’s studio — again, we ate, we drank, and we danced (the studio basically turned into a diskoteka) for the artistic director’s birthday.
I should also mention that Ukrainians do birthdays different than us here in Canada — if you invite someone out for your birthday, you’re the one buying the food and drinks, not the other way around.
And, like, the other Our Year girls and I are basically full-on Ukrainian so consider yourself warned if you plan to invite us out for your birthday.
8) When giving someone flowers, give an odd number. Give an even number only if they are for a funeral.
This is perhaps more of a tradition rather than a superstition. A couple times when we bought flowers, we had to overbuy because they wouldn’t even sell us an even number. We didn’t have enough knowledge of the Ukrainian language to explain to them that though we were buying an even number, we were going to give out an odd number.
This is exactly what happened to us when we went to the flower market in Lutsk and the vendor made sure we bought an odd number, even though we were only giving one per dancer of the Volyn ensemble after their show.
Buying an extra one of course wasn’t a big deal, but it was just neat to experience yet another tradition upheld in modern-day Ukraine.
9) If you find yourself standing between two people with the same name, lucky you, because it’s good luck.
Kaitlyn, my friend and fellow Ukraine local for a year, and I enjoyed spreading luck all across the country. And our dear friend Hannah would often request to sit between us, to bring her that much more good luck.
When we lived in Chernivtsi, a few people overheard us speaking English, which seems to be intriguing to many people, and so they came to talk to us for a bit, practising their English. (One of these people is the guy mentioned in my English mistranslations post who wore the legendary coat that said “Truth doesn't give a f*** about your opinion.” He had no idea what anything on his coat meant.)
After introducing ourselves, one of them commented about how lucky it is to have two people with the same name near each other, and took the superstition a step further than only bringing good luck. He said if you stand between two people with the same name, link arms with them and make a wish — it will come true.
10) Keep your glass on the table when someone pours you a drink. Make eye contact when you cheers. Do not cross arms when you cheers someone who’s not right beside you. End on an odd number of drinks.
There are so many folk beliefs surrounded around drinking that I thought I’d give you a only taste here and do a full post about drinking etiquette. Because believe me, there is so much to know.
I’m proud to say my family and friends humour me anytime we have a drink together, opening their eyes as wide as they can to make it clear they are making eye contact, making sure we toast with every drink, and, if necessary, pouring that one extra drink so we end on an odd number.
It’s fun to see these traditions in action, whether the people are doing it because they truly believe it or if they’re doing it just because it’s what they’ve been taught.
There are many more superstitions and beliefs (Ex: You will be questioned if you ask for a cold drink because, as you should know you, will get a cold if you drink anything cool, and ladies, absolutely do not sit on the floor unless something like a mat is placed on it — we made this mistake more than once on dance studio floors).
But you can use this list as a starter’s guide. Or a mindfulness guide. Or a culture guide.
However you view folk beliefs, they definitely have a place in Ukrainian life — past and present. Plus, they make for some pretty interesting stories.
Have any superstition stories? Or any favourite folk beliefs to follow? Comment below or send me an email!