My father celebrated his 13th birthday on Friday the 13th. I know this because I hear about it endlessly.

He’ll use any excuse to remind people, and by “people,” I mean, “me.” It’s one of his greatest hits. Granted, it’s a cool thing to have happened, and there’s a perverse joy in hearing him talk about it; it obviously tickles him, as evidenced by his infectious giggles every time he trots out this well-worn tidbit. His teary-eyed guffaws are akin to those of a dental patient in the woozy, pre-knockout throes of a horse-leveling dose of novocaine.

What each gleeful re-telling hints at, though, is a deep-seeded adherence to superstition. Ultimately, that’s what the fascination over Friday the 13th is about.

And my dad’s a smart guy; I think he knows that. But recognizing the silliness of such things doesn’t mean they relinquish the strange hold they have on us.

Take knocking on wood, for instance. There are devotees who would swear that if someone says, “I haven’t had a cold yet this year,” and then follows it up with a few raps on a red maple, the statement is protected from jinxing by magical wood fairies that have control over our respective fates. I don’t know if the wood fairies are subjects of a benevolent wood god or if they’re autonomous, Tinker Bell-like creatures, but I’ll bet they end each day trying in vain to remove sawdust from various bodily orifices. Remember, every time you sharpen a pencil, a wood fairy gets its wings.

Except ”“ oh, yeah ”“ they don’t exist. And yet people knock on wood anyway. I do it, even though I fully recognize it doesn’t actually accomplish anything. All it does is raw my knuckles and fool people into thinking the Jehovah’s Witnesses have come a-knockin’ ”“ which has a value of its own, since it’s sickly satisfying to see people drawing shades and ducking under potted plants like they’re seeking shelter from the A-bomb. In terms of actually achieving something important, the whole superstition falls short. Nobody’s ever passed a chemistry exam because they found an antique cooking spoon and rapped on it with the fervor of a wine-guzzling woodpecker. Yet we do it, because it’s just something you do. After a while it feels weird not to. I guess you could say it’s an ingrained behavior. Zing! Quick, somebody give me a medal for that one.

In the case of Friday the 13th, superstition holds that it’s supposed to be an unlucky day, a day of car crashes and bad news and freak household accidents. Most people don’t pay the day much mind; if they notice it at all, it’s to make an off-hand comment to a co-worker or family member: “Oh, hey, it’s Friday the 13th! Better look both ways before crossing the road! Hawhawhaw!” There are few left who still consider it anything more than the incidental convergence of a day and a number.

Yet these people exist. Look around; they walk among you.

That they take it so seriously is curious, given that it’s a relatively new phenomenon. It would be one thing if the superstition had been around for thousands of years; beliefs with that kind of lasting power get lacquered onto a culture and become hard to remove, so when someone, say, tosses salt over their left shoulder after spilling some, it’s a deeper idiosyncracy. It becomes more difficult to distinguish that kind of behavior from that which isn’t goofy. And make no mistake, if you’re flinging seasoning around in hopes that it will impove your life, you are engaging in goofy behavior. Might as well slap a baby with a slab of ham and expect to win the lottery.

The fear of Friday the 13th, however, is relatively new. According to my good buddy Joe Internet, the first documented reference to the supposedly unlucky day appeared in the 19th century, in Henry Sutherland Edwards’ 1869 biography of Italian composer Gioachino Rossini, who died on Friday the 13th. In the grand scope of things, that’s a relatively new superstition. It didn’t take long for humanity to know better, and yet here we still are, talking about a convergence of words and language that allegedly makes you more likely to stab yourself in the face with a rusty protractor. It’s a belief that shows remarkable tenacity considering it’s almost too young to be taking its first baby steps.

Tellingly, the superstition changes depending on where you are in the world. Spanish-speaking countries consider Tuesday the 13th a day of bad luck. In Italy, 13 is considered a lucky number, and it’s Friday the 17th they fear. Everyone can’t be right, or there would only be about four days each month during which it’s safe to go outdoors without being trampled by a herd of zebras. A more likely scenario is that the whole thing is hogwash, made up by some dude who just happened to have a really bad day on a Friday the 13th.

For some reason, I envision an old-timey cobbler with a handlebar mustache:

“Marjorie, I’ve just about had it! It’s bad enough I was attacked this morning by an angry emu, and then, somehow, punched myself in the face whilst shadow-boxing. But now I’ve gone and set my leg hair afire trying to light a fart! I do declare, this has been the unluckiest day imaginable! So all Fridays the 13th shall ever be, without exception! Now hand me my mustache curler, Marjorie, and let’s dig our spoons into that sloppybottom pudding I do love so.”

It’s a fun subject for horror movies, I guess, but that’s about the most use I’ve got for this strange fascination. I’ve lived through a lot of these days, and I’ve been punched in the groin by an orangutan in exactly zero of them. That’s allowed me to draw the rather obvious conclusion that Friday the 13th holds no magical powers, influences no outcomes, and decides the fate of precisely no one. If something bad happens today ”“ the way something does every day ”“ we can chalk it up to coincidence.

Which isn’t to knock the allure of coincidence, a different beast altogether. I mean, a 13th birthday on Friday the 13th? Go ahead and tell it to me one more time, Dad. It’s a cool one.

— Jeff Lagasse is a staff writer and columnist for the Journal Tribune, and ”“ whoa! Look out for that falling piano! Ahem, uh, he can be contacted at 282-1535, ext. 319 or [email protected]