Fingers crossed

I was talking with a colleague who comes from Brunei. I happened to remark, “Let’s keep our fingers crossed that this terrible pandemic ends soon”. He looked at me thoughtfully and replied, “I have always wondered why Europeans cross their fingers so often, why do they do this?”

Well, that got me thinking. Why, indeed?

Crossing fingers is one of the most common gestures, especially in the western world. I guess it must be one of the most recognised superstitions.

Some historians believe that the gesture pre-dates Christianity. There is some debate about this but a common theory is that people used to believe spirits lived at the intersection of crosses. To help get good spirits on your side, one person would extend their index finger while making a wish, while another person would respond by placing their finger on top, thus forming a cross, in the hope that good spirits would endorse the wish.

It is interesting to note, cultures where Christianity was prevalent all used this gesture, while it is much less common among Muslim or Buddhist cultures.

Christianity was outlawed during the early years of the religion. Because of this, disciples of Christ usually formed secret societies, with secret hand signals created to connect followers. The act of crossing fingers was a common gesture; one person would extend his hand with the index finger and thumb forming an L shape while another Christian would do the same. With their thumbs pressed together, a Christian fish symbol would be formed. This came to represent a good luck gesture, asking God to bless them.

There is evidence that the modern version of crossing fingers came into existence around the time of the Hundred Years War, which lasted between 1337 and 1457. Before firing a shot, an archer would have crossed his fingers and then said a short prayer before releasing the bowstring.

The early use of the gesture has evolved into something we all use from time to time. We cross our fingers when summoning up luck, and we use the gesture behind our backs when asking forgiveness for telling a little lie.

But beware. There are certain cultures that find the gesture insulting. In Vietnam, for example, the gesture is seen as highly offensive and aggressive.

Having carried out some research into the meaning of crossed fingers, I then decided to create a piece or work on this theme. Because of the Christianity origins, I decided to focus on a prominent colour that is associated with the Christian faith; purple. I have tried to capture some of the elements of Christianity into the abstract piece.

Please let me know if you have any information about ‘crossed fingers’ or if you have stories about the meaning of this gesture in other cultures.

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