The Luck of the English
Today is the first day of September and Rabbit! was the first word spoken in this house. I grew up thinking that our family was the only family with this strange tradition. On the morning of the first day of every month, there was a slow chorus in our house, from room to room, the word “Rabbit” was spoken one and then another until we had all been granted our month’s worth of good luck. In my mind, my grandmother was the originator of the tradition, and it extended to all my aunts and uncles and cousins on my father’s side of the family. My mother was complicit so I didn’t realize it was not her tradition, growing up, but rather something she adopted once she married my father. The superstition was that if you forgot to say rabbit, spoken as the first word on the first day of the month, you would have bad luck that month. Now that I have written that down, I realize how spooky it sounds, as if we were a bunch of paleolithic cave people, clinging to the earth by virtue of luck and whimsy. Whenever I mentioned this custom to friends, they would usually ask me where that came from. My only answer was “from my grandmother,” which, of course, is the short answer. Beyond that, I had no idea. More recently, I’ve discovered a few friends who also indulge in this strange habit, one who not only says Rabbit every month but who also collects rabbit figurines of all sizes and of all material, paper and stone not excluded. Another who feels that one must say the word twice, as in, Rabbit, Rabbit, for the luck to stick. But no one can explain to me why we say Rabbit and where the tradition came from.
This morning, I woke up and spoke the word to the silence around me. And finally realized that in this new world of instant information, I finally have the means to answer that question. I went directly to my computer and Googled “rabbit+first day of the month” and up came a variety of sites that referred to this strange habit. That validated me right there. According to the Wikipedia entry, the origin of this custom in unknown but it can be traced back to perhaps the 15th century, maybe even the 13th — good heavens! And it came from England, which makes sense since that is where my grandmother’s family came from. The reasons for the word Rabbit (as opposed to Luck! Or Help! Or Hello! — it seems that any nonsense word would probably do the trick) aren’t particularly clear (they link it to a lucky rabbit’s foot but then you have to ask, what is so lucky about a rabbit’s foot?) but the entry continues to say that one reason for the word Rabbit might be that “it is jumping into the future and moving ahead with life and happiness.”
It is ironic to me that both my grandmother and my father, in fact, their entire family, were possessed of the notion that they were unlucky, that fortune did not favor them. They were badly affected by the Depression and further by World War II and so perhaps the idea of saying Rabbit had a particular resonance and force for them. They were devoted to the ritual.
The tradition was extended on the first day of the new year, which called for walking backwards down the stairs and saying Rabbit at the same time. I remember an especially hilarious evening spent with my cousins on Cape Cod, not so long ago. I was visiting them at their beach house which had a treacherous set of wooden stairs that lead to the ocean. It was New Year’s Eve and particularly blustery outside but their house being a kind of one-story bungalow, did not have any stairs. And so we all trooped outside into the cold and inky darkness and walked backward down the steps toward the ocean, shouting Rabbit into the stiff ocean breeze. Fortunately, there wasn’t anyone to witness this spectacle and we all made it to the sand safely, laughing hysterically at our irrational claim to this family tradition.
I don’t remember if that year was any different from any other, in terms of luck or no luck. For that matter, once I say the word at the beginning of the month, I tend to forget the whole thing. I don’t subscribe to the idea that we need to perform ritual in order to call fortune into our lives. But I do believe I should honor my family and maybe this is how I do it. At this late date in the family history, it would seem sacrilegious to abandon this tradition. And so I keep on. And delight when I find another soul who has carried this old superstition into the 21st century. And to all, I say, Rabbit!