Thursday, 3 December 2015

They shall have good luck

Chris, cousin Ann and Mum, December 2013 and December 2014

White Rabbits, White Rabbits, White Rabbits

I said it on Tuesday 1st December, of course, prompted by my brother’s reminder on Facebook…. It’s become a regular thing. Something that my Mum used to always say. And now Chris does. Every month. On the 1st of the month. I wonder how many people say it. And why they do.

Lost in Legend

There are other variations of “White Rabbits, White Rabbits, White Rabbits.” Some people insist on “Rabbits, Rabbits, Rabbits.” Or “Pinch, Punch, First of the Month” along with a pinch and a punch. And in the West Country, apparently, you can retaliate to “Pinch, Punch….” with a swift and well-aimed “A Flick and a Kick for being so Quick.” But I grew up with the triple White Rabbits. So where did the phrase come from?
  • The internet reveals the uncorroborated claim that RAF pilots would always say it before every flight, though not why rabbits and not why white…. 
  • Some scholars think it’s connected to the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland and the fact that Lewis Carroll knew some Hebrew and the Hebrew saying “Have a great month” when transliterated verbally sounds a bit like “White Rabbits.” 
  • Some believe it’s connected to fertility and wishing parents would have good luck getting pregnant because rabbits are notoriously fertile.

Double Double Toil and Trouble

As a child I thought it was something to do with guarding against the power of witches. I think the “Pinch, Punch….” saying might be connected to this too, as a pinch of salt was used in medieval times to ward away witches. I thought white rabbits were something kindly magicians made use of (appearing out of top hats, for example), so rabbits, I reasoned as a child, would be a good charm to counteract the creatures that I understood witches used. My primary knowledge of witchcraft came from the Weird Sisters in Macbeth and they make use of cats, hedge-pigs, toads, snakes, adders, blind-worms, lizards, owlets, dragons, wolves, sharks, goats, tigers and baboons, not to mention the body parts of Jews, Turks and Tartars or a "finger of birth-strangled babe"…. Three times White Rabbits was the very least protection you needed, I imagined….

Was there ever man had such luck!

Cloten says "Was there ever man had such luck!" in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline but a few scenes later Cloten has been beheaded. He needed some more potent signs of luck: a black cat, a horseshoe, a money spider, a 4-leaf clover, maybe? Touching wood, knocking on wood or shaking hands with a chimney sweep? Seeing two magpies or admiring a rainbow? Catching falling leaves? Crossing your fingers? Throwing salt over your shoulder?

Now, by the gods, I pity his misfortune

King Simonides pities the misfortunes of Pericles and within a few lines the unfortunate guy is rewarded with a new bride and (eventually) a happy end. Plenty of misery before his happy ending but no tangible signs of bad luck: new shoes on the table, for example. Opening an umbrella indoors. Seeing one lone magpie. Friday the Thirteenth. Cracking a mirror. Walking under a ladder. Spilling salt (before throwing some over your shoulder to counteract the misfortune.)

Just to be on the safe side

So it could go either way, it seems. Cloten thought he was a lucky man and lost his head; Pericles suffered blow after blow and got a happy ending. Better just say “White Rabbits, White Rabbits, White Rabbits” in case. And try to remember to say it first thing before you say anything else…. Here’s to good luck for all in December!