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Why We Wish Using A Turkey’s Wishbones

The tradition dates back beyond the Roman Empire.

Every year on Thanksgiving, most of us follow a tradition of breaking the wishbone. While I’m sure many of us are going to be wishing to see the last of 2020’s shenanigans, the tradition of breaking the wishbone actually dates back to thousands of years of European tradition.

For those who don’t know what the wishbone is, it’s the bone known by its scientific name: furcula. It’s the fusion of the two clavicles which are important to a bird’s flight due to the tendons that cover it, providing elasticity. As far as the snapping of the wishbones go, this custom dates can centuries. While it may have come from the English, the tradition dates back to the days of the Romans. According to historians and archaeologists, the Romans borrowed this tradition from another ancient Italian civilization: the Etruscans.

Photo: Twitter / @sciam

Apparently, the Etruscans believed that birds, particularly their chickens, had divine properties. In other words, they could tell the future. As a result, they were used as oracles to assess the future. One of the rituals consisted of “rooster divination” in which Etruscan priests would draw a circle in the dirt and divide it into blocks that held the Etruscan alphabet. Then, they would use food placed in each block to lure in a chicken. As the chicken chose the food from the different blocks, it would be recorded the lettering and sequences which were chosen. Basically, it was like a chicken ouija board. This is how the Etruscan priests would tackle some of the civilization’s most urgent questions.

However, when chickens were killed, the wishbone was dried and preserved in order to continue the divine oracle work. This is where the modern-day name comes from, as people would then break apart the bone while making a wish. While this was a uniquely Etruscan thing, when the Etruscans encountered the Romans, the latter civilization ended up adopting many of the Etruscans’ culture and customs. And apparently, wishing on a chicken bone is one of them.

Of course, as the Roman Empire spread across Europe, so, too, did many of their practices. By the time they had made it to the British Isles, this custom was deeply rooted in their culture. Then, under the rule of the Romans, the Britons came to adopt the wishbone tradition as well. When the exploration of the New World came, chicken bones weren’t always available. The settlers had to do with what was there: native turkeys. And that is where the tradition of breaking the wishbone on Thanksgiving came from.

Pretty cool, huh? What do you think of the tradition? Let us know!