Why Do We Bless People When They Sneeze?

After a flurry of sneezing provoked by an early fall cleaning, I came to the conclusion that we waste too much time perpetuating the foolish tradition of saying, “Bless you.”

Most people bless others without even knowing why. So let’s say we explore this tradition and you can make a decision as to whether you want to continue wasting your breath on bless yous or not.

ANCIENT SUPERSTITIONS

Runaway Soul

An ancient superstition claimed that when a person sneezed, his soul made a run for it.  Saying “bless you” would prevent The Devil from filching the sneezer’s soul and adding it to his gigantic ball of souls he keeps in the cupboard under the Hell’s kitchen sink. If you are still foolish enough to believe in such a superstition, let me assure you, you’ve sneezed at least once in your life without being blessed. The Devil has your soul and has been rubbing it all over his horned genitals while river dancing on cloven hoofs just to spite you. So really, you’d be better off not believing this superstition.

Evil Spirits Doing Some B ‘n E.

Another superstition posits that nostrils are a spiritual gateway. So when you sneezed, evil spirits would enter your body. Again, if you believe this you’re most likely already full of evil spirits. See an exorcist.

Sneezing Makes Your Heart Stop

Yet another band of fools believed falsely that your heart would stop, or skip a beat when you sneezed, and it was only polite to bless that person as a welcome back to the land of the living. If this were true, then the zombocalypse has already happened and we are the zombies.

THE FIRST GOD BLESS YOU

The phrase “God bless you” in response to a sneeze, is believed to be coined by Pope Gregory the Great, who said it when the bubonic plague was kicking around in the 6th century. Certainly, if a sneeze is a sign you’re going to die a horrible death then saying “God bless you” is an appropriate response, but until the return of the bubonic plague, or something just as bad, I think we can tuck this phrase a way or at least replace it with something more appropriate.

GREEKS

The Greeks used to wish “long life” after a sneeze although many believe the gods, unable to decipher the complicated Greek language, mis-translated the blessing as “long back hair.”

ROMANS

The Romans used to say “Jupiter preserve you” or “Salve” which essentially meant good health to you.  A sneeze of course, can be a symptom of illness, so wishing good health seems appropriate but saying “Jupiter preserve you” is just plain cool.

GERMANS

You’ve probably heard or said the term, gesundheit. You probably knew it wasn’t an English word too. Hey, good on ya. I bet you’re aware gesundheit is a German word. What most people don’t know, is that it means “health”. It should also be wished upon someone when they are clogging up their arteries with endless amounts of bratwurst.

ARABS

People in Arabic countries say “Alhamdulillah,” which means “praise be to God” and if you’re in a US airport when you say this, usually gets you interrogated by uniformed guards wearing a latex gloves. Just kidding, we all know those screenings are completely random.

HINDUS

Hindus say “Live” or “Live well” in response to a sneeze which is far better, but less funny than wishing death upon the sneezer. Perhaps if the sneezer doesn’t cover their sneeze, we should wish death upon them for spreading their germs. Should people be wished well regardless of their actions?

CHINESE

When a child sneezes in China, she will be told “bai sui,” which means, “may you live 100 years.” The fallout from this has been a constant overflow in Chinese retirement residences and a shortage in birthday candles.

RUSSIANS

In Russia, children are given a slightly different response than adults.  In addition to the traditional “bud zdorov”, which means “be healthy”, the children are also told “rosti bolshoi” (“grow big”). It appears the Russians should have wished a long life like the Chinese as the Chinese live more than 7 years longer than Russians on average (73.47 years to 66.03 according the 2011 CIA World Factbook estimates).

SUMMARY

Why do sneezes get all the attention?

What about coughs, burps, hiccups and farts? Doesn’t seem fair to me.

There seems to be some logic behind the wishing of good health to a sneezer, but considering the majority of sneezes I hear are due to allergies and not the bubonic plague makes me think it might be going a bit far. On the other hand, uncovered sneezes should never go unpunished and the wishing of illness might just be a fitting punishment.

Anyway, if you see me sneeze, don’t worry about saying “bless you” unless, in the name of equality, you’re willing to extend that courtesy to my farts as well.

Jupiter preserve the whole lot of you!

  • Educational and entertaining. Well done sir. It is funny that no one observes these superstitions anymore but regards ‘bless you’ as a matter of etiquette. It’s too ingrained in me to stop doing it.

    • I know, I’ve been fighting off the urges to bless people. It’s not easy. I’m just dying for someone to ask, “Why didn’t you bless me?”

  • Pshway

    Nicely put, Dave. I guess if I were a kindergarten teacher tackling this subject with my children, I would tell them it’s out of respect and manners are important. Start preaching about souls makin’ a run for it and devils knocking on your nostril door, I’d get fired!

    Keep ’em comin’ Tex. Laura is a bit perturbed I read your and Kim’s blog and have yet to read hers. I gotta get on that!

    Ps. My great grandfather lived to be 104.3 years old. There were zero candles on his last moon cake.

    • Yes, it is a polite thing to do, but some traditions are too pointless to perpetuate.

      Tell Laura that Jupiter preserves her. She will be too confused to be perturbed.

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