Wishing Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything


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A single birthday candle.
Well I was sitting, waiting, wishing
You believed in superstitions
Then maybe you'd see the signs

- Jack Johnson

Making a wish is the process of expressing a desire or hope for something in the hope of getting it. It is hoping for a hope or desiring a desire. Wishing is a distinctly different act from praying, though in many cases the aims are the same. Praying has a religious connotation, while wishing is simply a matter of superstition1 and childish hope.

Wishing for something is all about wanting something, and doing an action to try to tempt the object of desire from the hands of fate. For the more cynical, who do not expect a wish to come true, the use of the word 'wish' is just an expression of want or need. For those of us who have a childish flame in our hearts, it is not uncommon to simply close our eyes and think, 'I wish I had a nice apple pie right now'. It is just as common for the wisher to open his or her eyes, and feel a tiny, but sharp pang of disappointment at the conspicuous absence of an apple pie. According to cultural tradition, there are several times in a person's life, or places in the world, where making wishes is more effective in bringing about the desired end result.

I Wish I May, I Wish I Might, Have this Wish, I Wish Tonight

Everyone knows that wishes are more likely to come to fruition when mumbled at particular moments. Many of us were told to make a wish by mothers and older relatives when we were young, and being children, we had no lack of wishes or reasons to refuse such a request. These memories gradually form habits, and then irrational superstitions, which get passed on to the next generation.

What follows is by no means a complete list of occasions when people decide to make a wish. The irrationality of people makes a complete list impossible. This entry attempts to present a fairly representative sample.


No man ever wished to be younger.
- Jonathan Swift

One of the most common times for making a wish is during a birthday celebration. The newly-aged person is presented with a birthday cake, complete with candles (in some cases, one candle for every year of life, but that tends to get dangerous with the elderly, who are in any case extremely flammable). According to tradition, the person celebrating his or her birthday makes a wish while blowing out all of the candles. Depending on who you ask, there are come caveats. Some will say that the wish doesn't come true if the blower does not succeed in extinguishing the candles in one breath. Others say that the success of the wish depends on the wisher keeping his wish secret – tell anyone your wish, and it won't come true. It seems likely that these caveats were added to hide the fact that birthday candle wishes are generally ineffective at fulfilling a desire.

The birthday cake is said to have originated in Ancient Greece, or Germany in the Middle Ages. (It may well have sprung up in both). The Greeks celebrated their moon goddess Artemis with round cakes, complete with candles, to represent the glow of the Moon, or possibly so that the smoke of the candles would carry the wishes of those assembled up to the Gods. The wishing and exclamations of 'Happy Birthday' were meant to prevent evil spirits from crashing the party. The Germans made a sort of sweetened bread dough cake and some believe that they placed a single candle in the cake to represent the life of the birthday person. Presumably, the Germans did not make a ritual of blowing the life-candle out.

Shooting Stars

What am I myself but one of your meteors?
- Walt Whitman

When a piece of debris floating around the solar system goes into the atmosphere of the Earth, it becomes a meteor. An earthly view of a meteor can be among the most beautiful of astronomical events. Especially beautiful are meteor showers, when large groups of meteoroids enter the Earth's atmosphere within a brief period. Each meteor creates a light streak against the sky, which fades fairly rapidly.

It is considered by many to be a sign of good luck to see a meteor, or a shooting star, as they are sometimes called. Astronomical events such as eclipses and comets have been held as omens (good and bad) throughout history. Perhaps this tradition of finding guidance in the heavens, and standing in awe of the celestial sphere eventually caused shooting stars to be seen as having the ability to make wishes true. Wishing upon a shooting star is one of the most prevalent and enduring of wishing traditions.


Everyone knows that when you rub an old lamp, a genie comes out and grants you three wishes. The most important matter is what you will do with those wishes. More than birthday candles or shooting stars, the presence of a genie will most certainly result in your wish being granted.

The idea has been popularised throughout Western culture by the Disney movie Aladdin, in the Christina Aguilera song 'Genie in a Bottle', as well as in the beginning of countless bad jokes about three men marooned on a desert island who find a lamp. The basic idea is that once the genie comes out of the bottle, he is the servant of the person who frees him, and must grant his master three wishes. In the film Aladdin2, the genie does not allow wishes to be made to ask for more wishes, a death, love or raising people from the grave.

Assuming that any genie that the reader may encounter would be bound by the same rules of wish-granting, this Researcher would advise careful consideration of options before any decision is made. If the moralistic, preachy tales of young children are any guide, we should be careful what we wish for.


A wishbone, or a furcula (meaning 'little fork' in Latin), is a bone often found in birds consisting of two long bones meeting together at the top. When eating a turkey or a chicken, it's common to come across this kind of bone. The great thing about this bone is that when two people pull on its end, it will split into two pieces, but not cleanly in half. One end will take the top of the bone with it.

Traditionally, when encountering a wishbone, two people each grasp one end of the bone (with pinkies for many people), make a wish, and pull. The person who gets the larger portion of the wishbone will have his wish granted. The unlucky person is left to purchase another whole bird carcass if he wants his wish granted.

Tanabata Festival

Bamboo-grass leaves flowing in the wind
Swinging by the edge of the eaves
Stars are shining
Like fine gold and silver sand

- Traditional Tanabata song

According to Japanese tradition, two stars in the sky representing separated lovers come together, for just one day, on the seventh day of the seventh month (August or July, depending on whether you use a lunar or solar calendar). Altair, the man, is separated by a river (the Milky Way) from his lover, the star Vega. On this one day of the year, (what one assumes would have to be a massive quantity of) magpies form a bridge across the river3, and the lovers meet for the day. If it rains on that day, the river floods and they have to wait another year.

The Tanabata, or Star Festival, is an occasion for wishes to be made. During this time, while large festivals are held in certain parts of Japan, people write their wishes on colourful pieces of paper, and on the seventh day of the month, they put them on decorated bamboo branches4. In some places, the bamboo, with slips of paper on it, is burnt or floated out onto the water.

Street Lights

The Street Light technique is not the most common delusion of wish-making, but it is certainly just as valid as the rest5. The basic premise is that if you see a street light, or a street lamp flicker on, you should make a wish quickly, and it should come true. Alternatively, seeing a street light go out can be bad luck (or good luck, again depending on who you believe).


Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.
- Douglas Adams

Digital clocks have created a whole new way of thinking about time. Whereas with the old analogue clocks and watches, seeing that it was 49 minutes until noon would not have been at all exciting, today some people make quite a terrific fuss over their digital clocks telling the time. For some people, a clock reading 11:11 is the occasion for a wish to be made. Depending on their level of sanity, some may also choose to make a wish at 1:11, 2:22, 3:33, 4:44, 5:55, 6:666 1:23, etc.

There is no reasonable explanation for this behaviour. Perhaps it is just a matter of people feeling lucky at having seen a particularly interesting combination of numbers, and when feeling lucky, they feel compelled to make a wish. Of course, this is the sort of logic that can rob people of their life's savings at the roulette wheel in Las Vegas.

Wishing Wells

One of the classic places for wishing is at a so-called 'wishing well'. The tradition of putting coins into public fountains comes from this idea, even though those aren't really wells. This idea emerged from old European Folklore, where some peoples believed that some wells had gods in the water in the bottom. Speaking the wishes aloud, and then thanking the gods with coins, was supposed to assure you of having your wish granted. According to some, your wish would be granted if your coin landed 'heads-up', but it would not be granted if it landed 'heads-down'.

Shopping centres, plazas and some higher-end backyards have fountains and ponds with small fortunes of coins at the bottom. So what happens to all that money? For some of these 'wells', the money actually gets collected and donated to charitable organisations. For the rest, it's a matter of someone profiting from the childishness of others. 'Twas ever thus.

Selling your Soul

How strange a thing this is! The Priest telleth me that the Soul is worth all the gold in the world, and the merchants say that it is not worth a clipped piece of silver.
- Oscar Wilde

Whether you've ever attempted it or not, selling your soul to Satan is not an unheard-of feature in folklore and in literature. According to Blues legend, Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil at a crossroads at midnight. He apparently did this in order to receive his incredible and ultimately influential musical talent.

If you were ever to meet the Devil at a crossroads at midnight, you may have the opportunity to sell your soul to him for something, or perhaps in exchange for a few wishes. The film Bedazzled (the 1967 original starring Peter Cook and Dudley Moore and its 2000 remake starring Elizabeth Hurley) involved the main character selling his soul to Satan for seven wishes. Perhaps unsurprisingly, none of them worked out very well for the protagonist. While your wishes may come true from dealing with the devil, you have to know that he or she (in the previously mentioned film, Satan is portrayed as a woman) will do his or her best to ruin everything for you.

Western Wall

In Jerusalem, there is an ancient wall, known as the Western Wall, supposedly the only remaining part of the original Temple of Solomon. It is considered to be the holiest place in Israel accessible to Jews. It is also known as the Wailing Wall, because of the tendency of Jews to gather there to bemoan the destruction of the Temple of Solomon.

There are plenty of crevices and cracks in the wall, and if one looks closely, there are an abundance of slips of paper with wishes and prayers on them. As a tradition, visitors to the Western Wall place these pieces of paper into the wall, hoping that because God is close to this place, he will hear their prayers if they are put into the wall. There is, in fact now a service which allows people to have their prayers remotely placed into the walls by placing an order over the internet (for a small payment).

Lil Wishes

What follows is a rapid-fire list of other ways to make wishes.

  • If you lose an eyelash, or a friend does, put the eyelash on your pinky finger, make a wish, and blow it away.

  • Christmas Pudding has a couple of wish-myths attached to it. Stirring the mixture can merit a wish, according to some. If someone puts in a silver coin during the mixing process, the person who finds the coin in his or her helping makes a wish7.

  • When a dandelion is at the stage of the 'dandelion clock', with the greyish seed filaments on the outside, pull it up, make a wish, and blow all the seeds away. Your neighbours may not be pleased, so perhaps it is fit to use your wish for some weed-killing treatment.

If Wishing Made it So...

Unfortunately, wishes do not generally seem to come true. With well over six billion people on this earth, if every birthday cake wish alone came true, every man would be a king and every small child would have a pony. The world would know peace, and scourges like disease, poverty and hatred would be eradicated. Sadly, a huge number of those six billion people, the people who most need their wishes to come true, lack for cake, calendars or the means to celebrate their birthdays, not to mention whole turkeys for wishbones, lamps for genies, street lights, clocks or money to throw into wells.

The lack of so much in the world is, alone, evidence of the overall futility of making wishes. It is a simple pleasure, and doesn't hurt anyone, but if wishes could come true, it is perhaps only right that the well-off would get their wishes last. Some wishes do come true. The Make-a-Wish Foundation, for instance, is a non-profit organisation which, like a genie in a bottle, grants a wish to children who are suffering from possibly fatal medical conditions.

In the final analysis, it's probably a good thing that wishes do not come true. Happiness is so elusive that it's likely that most people would only complicate, and not improve their lives, by placing themselves in charge of their destinies.

1Whether the religious element is a glorified version of the same superstition is left for the reader to decide.2In the case of mythical genies, who surely do not exist in real life, this Researcher considers any source concerning fictional powers and beings to be as good as the next. The original story of Aladdin, of Arabic origin, is actually less relevant to the topic of this entry than the Disney version.3In order to span the Milky Way and hold the weight of two stars, an albatross or eagle might be more appropriate for the task.4This Japanese Festival is thought to have been derived from the Chinese Qi Xi, 'Night of Sevens' (also known as Chinese Valentine's Day). However, in the Chinese version, only a woman seeking a husband is expected to make wishes (for a good husband).5Which is to say, not at all.6If this time actually existed, it would likely be an excellent time to make a request of Satan. See below.7Wishing that someone in the area knows the Heimlich Manoeuvre to clear a silvery obstruction in the oesophagus is a perfectly valid wish.

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