A promise made is a promise kept, as they say. However, as a child, promises that were made were not always kept. And sometimes, shamefully, promises were made with fingers crossed behind our backs, a move that rendered the promise null and void.
My mother, Florence, was one of the kindest people you could meet. My teachers were upstanding individuals. Both had taught me well. So where did I learn these things? In the schoolyard. And what was said in the schoolyard stayed in the schoolyard.
This was about the same time, when I was eight or nine, that “liar, liar, pants on fire!” was a common, not-so-kind refrain on the playground. I can’t remember the comeback for that, although I’m sure there was one (children are witty).
Anyway, crossed fingers had multiple meanings. Finger-crossing was used positively (still is, even now) to wish another good luck. You could employ one of many variations to let someone know you were crossing your fingers for them.
Going back to its early origins, it was commonly used among Christians as they formed the sign of the cross. This originated with the early Catholic Church and signified the power of the cross for protection—a sign that could be made by one saint or even by two, just as you might see one person placing their hand over another’s as a sign of support. It was believed to ward off evil, whether real or perceived. I have used the sign of the cross myself, though gesturing in fun when faced with something I was tempted to eat, but knew I shouldn’t.
In an even more rare sign of support (one I have not witnessed), someone may link their index finger with another’s in a show of support likened to a pat on the shoulder, a hand placed on top of another’s, a thumb’s up, an A-OK, or even a wink.
As for child’s play, I soon learned that crossing my fingers while making a promise just did not feel right. And I definitely did not enjoy being called a liar whose “pants were on fire” (the verdict when a promise was not kept).
Gestures are useful, indeed, but crossing my fingers is one gesture that I left behind so very long ago. Right after I pronounced myself “King of the Castle.”