It has happened to all of us. You are sitting in a room of people and your nose suddenly starts to tingle, followed by itching, then by the unmistakable urge to sneeze. All you can do is close your eyes and “let-her-rip”. Usually several people around you will say, “God Bless You”. You have just been blessed by people you don’t even know, all because you sneezed. Why is that? What is it that prompts strangers to want to bless you?
A little research on this matter reveals the usual answer, no one really knows for sure when and why the custom began. However, there are always several explanations offered by so-called experts.
It seems that back in the early days when people did not really understand the workings of the human body, the sneeze created a number of what we would call “old wives’ tales”. The sneeze was not well understood at the time.
Some believed such things as:
a. The heart stopped beating during a sneeze and the blessing encouraged the heart to continue beating.
b. A person’s soul could be thrown from their body while sneezing.
c. Sneezing somehow opened up the body to invasion by the Devil or evil spirits.
d. A sneeze was the body’s effort to force out an invading evil presence.
e. Some cultures viewed sneezing as a sign of good fortune, or God’s beneficence.
It would seem that the people who believed such things felt that a blessing such as “God bless you”, or a simple “bless you” could be used as a sort of shield against these evils. Consequently, different countries adopted certain words to accomplish this. Some have adopted the German word Gesundheit (meaning ‘health’), others the Irish word slainte (meaning ‘good health’), or the Spanish word salud. They all wish good hea
lth upon the sneezer.
I like the explanation that holds that the custom originally began as an actual blessing. Gregory I became Pope in AD 590 just as an outbreak of the bubonic plague was reaching Rome. In hopes of fighting off the disease, he ordered unending prayer and parades of chanters through the streets. At the same time, sneezing was thought to be an early symptom of the plague. The blessing “God Bless You” became a common effort to halt the disease.
There are many superstitions regarding sneezing. The following are my favorites:
Sneeze on Monday for health,
Sneeze on Tuesday for wealth,
Sneeze on Wednesday for a letter,
Sneeze on Thursday for something better,
Sneeze on Friday for sorrow,
Sneeze on Saturday, see your sweetheart tomorrow,
Sneeze on Sunday, safety seek.
A sneeze before breakfast is a sign that you will hear exciting news before the end of the day.
We know today, of course, that when you sneeze your heart doesn’t stop, nor will your eyes pop out if you can keep them open, nor does your soul get expelled. What does get expelled are hundreds upon thousands of microscopic germs at a speed approaching one hundred miles per hour. The current advice is to cover your nose with your arm rather than you hand. That way, all those germs won’t be on your hands when you touch the countless things you handle in the course of the day.
We persist in the custom of saying “bless you” or “gesundheit” merely out of habit and common courtesy. Have you been “blessed” yet today?