On the whole, North-country and Scottish folk are more superstitious than the people of the English southern counties. But often the same charms will be found in two counties as distant and dissimilar as Cumberland and Sussex, and many of the superstitions in which Ireland is rich are found to be almost identically the same in the most modern, town-strewn counties of England.
More prevalent in the North than in the South is the imaginative idea of a "changeling," though Sussex, which Mr. Kipling tells us was the last home of the fairies, has many quaint ideas.
A dangerous method resorted to in Northumberland to ensure the baby not being changed by the envious "little people" would probably in its action be much more likely to hurt the baby than the fairy. A carving-knife is hung, point downwards, a short distance from the baby's face over the head of the cradle! This is believed to terrify the fairies, who dare not go near cold steel. The practice of placing a knife near a sleeping baby to prevent the visits of fairies and evil spirits in the mother's absence is another version of the same idea.
In Ireland mothers will often use the most drastic measures to prevent the baby being "changed"; indeed, if they suspect such has been the case, they will place the infant on a hot shovel to sec whether it screams or not 1
Another test is to "draw blood above the mouth" - that is, to cut the upper lip to find whether blood will flow. It is not to be wondered at that these superstitions still linger, when we read in Martin Luther's "Table Book" that "Changelings Satan lays in the place of genuine children, that people may be tormented with them."
The fear of the "evil eye" is still common in many counties, and babies are considered especially liable to its malign influence. Lancashire women declare that the only remedy for the evil is to spit in the baby's face three times, turn a live coal in the fire, and exclaim in a loud voice, "The Lord be with us!" This effectually scares away the imp of the Evil One, it is believed.
An even more elaborate method is still resorted to in Cornwall. Before sunrise, the suspected infant is brought to a blacksmith of the seventh generation, and laid on his anvil. The smith raises his hammer high, as if to strike the baby, but instead brings it down gently on its naked body. This is done three times, and - if the baby does not die of cold or fright - its cure is certain.
If a baby or a pig become suddenly and unaccountably ill, the Irish peasants believe it is "eye-bitten." In the case of the baby, the remedy is to throw a cupful of cold water in the child's face, and, quickly making the sign of the Cross, say, In the name of Christ." In the case of the pig, a pail is used instead of a cup, and the invocation is omitted.
Her first baby is peculiarly dear to every mother; it is surrounded with such hallowed feelings, and such long-felt desires and wishes and hopes are centred round this little miracle of life that it is no wonder many superstitions have grown up round it.
Yorkshire people, at the birth of the first child, invite a number of friends to the house, and offer as refreshment a slice of gingerbread and cheese and some kind of home-made wine. All the maidens present must take a slice of the gingerbread and place it under their pillows that night, for it is "dreaming cake," and has the power of bringing before them the vision of their future husbands. This superstition varies a little locally, but is found almost everywhere in the British Isles.
The first baby must be watched intently for the first seven days, for if it remain healthy so long, it will live and thrive seven weeks; if it lives for that period, there is every reason why it should live seven months, and then seven years.
Many mothers will not let their children be out of their own charge for fourteen months - that is, twice seven - until "their limbs have stiffened." The "christening bit," or "christening crib," or "christening cake," is another rite which must be observed by every mother, so that her first baby may go luckily through life. As the christening procession makes its way to the church, the nurse must give to the first person she meets a paper pag containing (usually) a piece of cake, some biscuits, and cheese. If the person is ungracious enough to refuse, the baby's chances of success in life are considerably lessened. So good were the "christening bits" often found that in many villages the children would discover when a baby was to be christened, and lie in wait for the tempting morsels. There was no fear then that the "bit" would be refused I Fifeshire children call it the "Bairn's Piece."
On the very smallest events often depends the future of the unsuspecting infant. For instance, Yorkshire mothers declare that, even before they handle their own little one themselves, it should be laid in the arms of a maiden, for so it will always remain good and pure. This custom doubtless arises from the sweet legend that the Blessed Virgin Mary was present at the birth of St. John the Baptist, and took him in her holy arms.
The belief that both mother and child should come down first only on a Sunday is a relic of old Jewish ritual.
Mothers of the North declare that the luckiest baby is the one whose name is decided before it is born; the next in point of luck is the one whose name is chosen within nine days of its birth; while evil will certainly befall the unhappy infant whose parents have neglected the selection of a name after this period of its life.
Babies born during "chime hours" - that is, the hours of three, six, nine, and twelve - will possess some doubtful luck, for they will be able to discern spirits and can never be bewitched.