Thanksgiving’s Wishbone Traditions Have a Long History
There's only one wishbone rule you need to know: the biggest side wins.
Reading Time: 4 minutes
by Tove Danovich
Once the Thanksgiving meal is over, most families take part in an annual wishbone tradition. The bird has been carved and the skeleton picked clean, and a small Y-shaped bone is set aside to dry. The furcula, as the bone is actually called, hangs off the bird’s skeleton like a necktie and helps stabilize them for flight, a thing that modern turkeys don’t do much of anymore.
Depending on how patient the wishbone breakers are, the bone might be broken that night or in the days following the feast. The wishbone rules are simple: one person grabs each side, pulls, and the person with the bigger half gets a Thanksgiving wish. Particularly superstitious wishers often let the bone dry for three days before snapping it.
Though wishbones are commonly associated with turkeys, all poultry have them — chickens, ducks, broad-breasted vs. heritage turkeys, and even geese — and people have been using these domesticated birds to grant wishes or tell the future since ancient times.
The tradition dates back to the Etruscans, an ancient civilization that lived in the area we know as Italy today. But instead of breaking the bone in half, Etruscans would make a wish while stroking the bone — more like a good luck charm. According to Peter Tate’s book, Flights of Fancy, it was during the St. Martin’s Night celebrations in medieval Europe that people started the wishbone tradition as we know it today with two people pulling on the wishbone, then called “merry thought.”
Poultry have a long history of being used to grant wishes and tell the future. Ancient Greeks used to place grain on marked cards or mark kernels of corn with letters and carefully record which ones their chickens pecked first. The Roman army carried cages of “sacred chickens” with them — the designated chicken keeper was known as the pullarius. Once, as Andrew Lawler writes in Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?, the sacred chickens suggested a Roman general stay in camp. He fought instead. “He and most of his army were slain within three hours as a devastating earthquake shook Italy,” Lawler writes. Obey the chickens — or else. The poultry premonitions were so important that many advisers began to game the system. Chickens were often kept hungry or overfed the day before “divining” desired answers.
Other religions also have ceremonies that involve poultry, many of them controversial. During Yom Kippur, some Jews practice kapparot where a live chicken is swung overhead in a circle three times, taking on that person’s sins, before the bird is slaughtered and given to the poor. In Santeria and Voodoo, chickens are a common sacrifice and one can occasionally still find the tradition of reading the future in the animal’s entrails — a custom which also dates back to Roman times.
Geese helped foretell how bad the coming winter would be in European and Scandinavian traditions. Tate writes that after St. Martin’s Night, a dried goose’s breastbone would be examined to determine “whether the coming winter would be cold, wet, or dry.”
Compared to decisions like whether to wage a war or how well to stock the larder before a long winter, making a wish on the snap of a turkey’s bone feels like low stakes. Many children, however, study the wishbone long and hard before deciding which side they think will win a coveted wish. Today the internet has taken a bit of magic out of the wishbone tradition with tips on winning like choosing the thicker side (obvious) or ones that use the physics of pulling apart a two-pronged bone to your advantage like holding the wishbone closer to the center or letting the other person do most of the pulling.
Growing up as an only child, I never had to fight over the wishbone. Whichever of my parents felt like pulling it held the other end. Despite the tricks for getting the bigger half (and I suspect my parents would have reverse-cheated so I could have it), what made it so exciting was that despite all my plotting and studying the wishbone ahead of time, I never knew if I’d won until after I heard the snap and looked down at the bone fragment in my hand.
Making wishes with wishbones or trying to see the future thanks to hungry chickens or fat geese were once part of daily life. Though we think of it as a Thanksgiving tradition, plenty of people used to break wishbones every time they served up a whole bird. Today, breaking a wishbone isn’t just a fun tradition but also a rare link to our food — a way to remember that birds have skeletons just like us even if they’re lighter and thinner and so breakable that a little kid can snap one between her hands.
Americans are increasingly turning to processed poultry in the form of ground turkey or chicken breasts and wings, more often than the whole bird and the occasions for gathering up a wishbone are becoming rarer as we look for ways to save time while making dinner. So, the next time you grab a rotisserie chicken from the store or unwrap a farm-fresh whole duck for the table, set that Y-shaped bone aside and make a wish. After all, humans have been doing it for thousands of years.