The Catholic Origin of Crossing Your Fingers

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You’ve probably done it yourself or seen somebody else do it. We cross our fingers or even just say “fingers crossed” in hopes of “good luck”. As children, we might have crossed our fingers behind our back when telling a white lie to adults, or when we were making a promise to a friend we didn’t plan on keeping. It turns out however, that people have been crossing their fingers for far longer. In fact, the gesture goes back almost three thousand years. How did we come to start crossing our fingers?

The origin of the gesture has its beginnings in the Kingdom of Israel. Courts that dealt with the Law of Moses would end their verdicts by saying “May God have mercy upon your soul.” They said the phrase to affirm God’s supreme authority over the law and humanity. A majority of judges felt that although they could sentence one to death, only God had the authority to judge and pass verdicts on one’s soul. Therefore, some judges would cross their fingers when sentencing someone to death as a form of small prayer over their soul. However, while the gesture may have first come from a scant number of judges in Mosaic Courts, its true history did not begin for almost a thousand years during the early Church.

The common usage of crossing fingers began in the infancy of the Church, when early Faithful suffered intense religious persecution for their beliefs. They would cross their fingers to invoke protection when faced with evil, the cross formed with the fingers representing the True Cross that Christ bore. During the Roman Persecutions, early Catholics would use it as a symbol to recognize each other and assemble to celebrate Mass without being detected. However, the early version of the gesture didn’t look the same as it does today. Two people would form an ‘L’ with their thumb and index finger, and touch their thumbs together while crossing their index fingers.

The origin of the single person form of crossing fingers is a debated topic. Some say that it began in early clandestine Church gatherings during persecution, where everyone would hold up their crossed fingers during assembly. Others say that the gesture originated in Hundred Years War during the 14th and 15th century. During intense battles when soldiers needed God’s favor, they would cross their fingers as a form of small prayer. Over time, the gesture became used for a general asking of God’s favor and for luck.

If crossing fingers started as a small prayer to God, how did we come to also do it when lying? The exact reason why is, again, a debated topic amongst historians. It is believed to have started in the early days of the Church when persecuted Catholics had to lie about their beliefs or else face death since Catholicism was outlawed. Because the Ninth Commandment teaches us not to lie, early Catholics would make the gesture after lying about their faith as a way to ask for God’s forgiveness for their denial.

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