Why Are Wishbones Supposed to be Lucky?

By: Debra Ronca & Yara Simón  | 
An older hand pinches a wishbone while a younger hand hooks it with the pinky
Wishbones may be the origin of the term "getting your lucky break." Who knew? Flashpop / Getty Images

Wishbones have long served as a symbol luck and encouraged young children to play with their food. One of the most iconic images of the holidays is that of two family members or friends (usually kids) fighting over the almost Y-shaped bone.

As each struggles to crack the bone and get the bigger piece, the one who comes out victorious ensures good luck and that his or her wish will come true. But what's behind this rather odd piece of folklore?


Origins of the Wishbone

The furcula, or "wishbone," of a turkey, duck or chicken is the fusion of the bird's clavicles right above the sternum. Although today we mostly hear about playing the wishbone game with turkey bones during the holidays, the origins of wishbones as lucky charms go all the way back to ancient times.

Around 700 B.C.E., the Etruscans believed birds were oracles that could tell the future. Whenever the Etruscans slaughtered a chicken, they would leave the furcula in the sun to dry out, preserving it in hopes of gaining some its divining powers. Villagers would then pick up the furcula and gently stroke it while making a wish, giving it its more common name: the wishbone.


Legend has it that the Romans then picked up on this superstition. However, chickens were scarce, and therefore, so were the wishbones. People had to resort to cracking the bones in half so there were enough to go around.

Later, the Romans passed the wishbone-cracking tradition to the British, who then carried it over with them to Plymouth Rock. As this new land was abundant with wild turkeys, people began using turkey wishbones for luck.


How to Wish on a Wishbone

What are the rules around cracking a wishbone? How do you make a wish on it? Typically, you dry the wishbone for a few days until it's brittle — otherwise, you will have a hard time cracking it correctly. When it's ready, two people hook their pinkie fingers around each end, make a wish and pull. Whoever ends up with the bigger piece will have their wish come true.

More complicated versions of this include a British version in the 17th century in which someone would balance the wishbone on their nose, make a wish and then shake it off. Then it would be pulled apart. Or taking it further, the winner would then put a broken piece of the wishbone in each fist and let the other person choose a fist. If the other person chose the longer piece, they would get their wish instead. Complicated, we know [source: Meikle].


Some people wear wishbone jewelry or carry small ones as good luck charms, just like a four-leaf clover or a rabbit's foot. It seems, though, that the unbroken wishbone is only the promise of good luck. It must be broken for your wish to come true — which, by the way, might be the origin of the phrase "getting your lucky break."

Wishbone in Popular Culture

Several TV shows have depicted characters cracking wishbones together. However, when it comes to children's programming, the term "wishbone" is mostly famously tied to a Jack Russel terrier.

In the 1990s, "Wishbone," a PBS TV show, featured a little dog named Wishbone that made his way into works of classic literature, including "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," "Northanger Abbey" and "Oliver Twist." Originally, the show's creators hoped to have the series revolve around a lucky dog, but they eventually scrapped the idea, opting to set the episodes inside the world of books.


"When I arrived, the idea was that he was a lucky dog named Wishbone," showrunner and head writer Stephanie Simpson told Texas Monthly. "Whenever you got close to him, he made good things happen for you. I went off and tried to write a story with that idea in mind and didn't get very far. Having a dog that was lucky made everything happen too easily."

Lucky Wishbones FAQs

What does a wishbone symbolize?
Many believe wishbones bring good luck. If you wish on a wishbone and get the bigger half, legend says your wish will come true.
Why is a wishbone lucky?
Ancient Romans used to think of the wishbone as a sign of good luck. However, as time passed, it became a common belief that breaking the wishbone and getting the bigger part could make your wish come true.
What is a wishbone?
The wishbone is the furcula, a forked bone that fuses the two clavicle bones located between the neck and breast of a bird.
Can one person break a wishbone?
Generally, two people hold the wishbone and crack it. One of them will get the bigger piece when it breaks, though sometimes it will break evenly. One person can certainly control a wishbone break on their own, but traditionally, this tradition has involved two people.
What animals have wishbones?
Several types of poultry have wishbones, including geese, chicken and ducks.
Do humans have wishbones?
Humans do have two clavicles, but they're not fused together, as they are in birds. So no, humans do not have wishbones.

Lots More Information

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  • Carr, Karen. "Etruscans." History for Kids. 2014. (Dec. 11, 2014) http://www.historyforkids.org/learn/romans/history/etruscans.htm
  • Davis, Marcia. "Davis: Wishbone myth has long history." Knoxville News Sentinel, Nov. 19, 2006. (Dec. 11, 2014) http://www.knoxnews.com/knoxville/life/davis-wishbone-myth-has-long-history
  • Katzman, Rebecca. "What's the Story, Wishbone?" Modern Farmer, Nov. 26, 2014. (Dec. 11, 2014) http://modernfarmer.com/2014/11/whats-story-wishbone/
  • Meikle, Marg. "How Much Does Your Head Weigh?" Scholastic Canada, 2010. (Dec. 11, 2014) https://books.google.com/books?id=1ZL6DNcjbM8C&lpg=PA321&ots=Saj4mTAwQZ&dq=merrythought%20wishbone%20luck&pg=PA321#v=onepage&q=merrythought%20wishbone%20luck&f=false