While many countries avoid the number 13, Italians are more fearful of the number 17. This fear stems from the fact that the number 17’s Roman numeral, XVII, is an anagram of VIXI, which means “I have lived” in Latin. Some consider this a bad omen as it implies that death is just around the corner.
The malocchio, or evil eye, is a look of jealously or envy and, according to Italian folklore, it can do some real harm. If someone has looked at you with the malocchio, you might suffer headaches or other physical pain. To counter the evil eye, make the shape of horns with your hand or wear a horn-shaped lucky charm.
Some Italians believe that keeping feathers in the house is bad luck, and doubly so if they’re peacock feathers because their pattern is similar to that of a pesky evil eye.
Due to their association with witchcraft, black cats are often seen as bad luck by many cultures around the world. Others see them as a positive omen and as bringers of good luck. Surprisingly, both beliefs are held in Italy—seeing a black cat is bad karma, but if it sneezes, good fortune is on its way.
Rather than touching wood to avoiding tempting fate, Italians say “tocca ferro” and reach for something made of iron instead. This superstition originated from the idea that horseshoes ward off evil spirits and some particularly superstitious Italians might carry small charms or even a nail they can stroke at a moment’s notice.
Most likely due to the fact that it was historically such an expensive commodity, spilling olive oil is believed to bring bad luck in Italy. So, be careful when dressing a salad, though if you do happen to make a blunder, dab some of the spilled oil behind each ear to rectify your mistake.
Just like you might tell someone to “break a leg” in English, Italians have their own idiom to wish someone good luck without actually uttering that phrase, which, naturally, would be considered to mean the opposite. In bocca al lupo, or “in the mouth of the wolf,” should be said to anyone about to take on a challenge. The correct response to this isn’t to say thank you, but crepi, meaning “may the wolf die.”
A beautiful bunch of flowers makes the perfect gift, but avoid chrysanthemums if the recipient is Italian. Chrysanthemums are given on All Souls Day when people visit cemeteries and honor loved ones who have passed away. This particular flower represents mourning, so presenting them on happy occasions is a big faux pas.
Superstitious Italians will never place their hat on a bed for fear of ill fortune. This action is associated with the last rites performed by priests visiting someone on their deathbed.
New Year’s Eve celebrations often include lenticchie in Italy. Their coin-like shape serves as a reminder of money and they help ensure that the coming year will be prosperous. According to this tradition, the more you eat, the richer you’ll be, so eat up!