Here comes that annoying tickle in your nose again. You try to hold it back, but it’s no use. You’ve got to let it out!
Immediately, someone says, “God bless you!” You say, “Thank you!” then carry on with your day. Do you ever wonder why you were just given that nice wish? Do you ever think, thank goodness my life’s not in jeopardy? Hundreds of years ago, people thought that very thing.
Sneezing is an involuntary action. It’s a way for your body to get rid of some irritant. It could be dust, pollen, pet dander, pepper, or even a tiny bug that flew up your nose. Whatever the irritant, your body knows that it must get rid of the problem right away.
A sneeze begins with a tickle. This message is then sent to a “sneeze center” in your brain, where it dispatches the message to your muscles. Do you think that just your nose and mouth are involved?
Think again. Your abdomen, diaphragm, chest, vocal chords, and eyelids all play a role in a full-blown sneeze. They work together to expel 2,000–5,000 bacteria-filled droplets into the air. That’s a lot of germs floating around! This explains why we cover our mouths when we sneeze, preferably with a tissue that can be thrown away.
Why do we say “God bless you” when someone sneezes? To understand that, we need to go back to the Middle Ages. Back to the year 589 AD, in fact. There was no electricity. Farmers used ox-drawn plows to tend their fields. Women churned butter and girls milked cows. From sunup to sundown, men, women, and children worked hard on the farms or labored in the crowded cities. That’s the way life was.
Then, in 589, the Tiber River, the third longest river in Italy, overflowed. The floodwaters swept away farms, houses, churches, people, and animals. All this death brought on a pestilence, or contagious disease, known as the plague. Five thousand people collapsed to their deaths each day. People coughed and sneezed violently. Often a sneeze was a sign that the plague was upon them.
What could stop this deadly disease from spreading?
Enter Pope Gregory the Great. He came from a very religious family. His strong background and steadfast faith in God enabled Pope Gregory (later “Saint” Gregory) to be a powerful leader at a critical time in history. In Rome, Pope Gregory called upon the people to join together. He summoned them to march in the streets, arm in arm, asking God for forgiveness and for an end to the pestilence. He asked priests to lead people from all seven different regions of the city to the Basilica of the Virgin Mary. Whenever anyone sneezed, he asked that they immediately say, “God bless you!” as a prayer to ward off the plague. Eighty marchers fell ill to the plague on the procession to the Basilica, but their prayers were finally answered. At some point after this procession, the plague ended.
Today, many people continue to offer this kind wish to someone who sneezes. In Germany, if someone sneezes, folks say, “Gesundheit,” or “Health.” In Poland, people say, “Na zdrowie,” which means, “To your health.” In some Spanish-speaking countries, if you sneeze once, people say, “Salud” (Health). If you sneeze twice, it’s “Salud y dinero” (Health and money). If you happen to sneeze again, you’ll hear, “Salud, y dinero y amor” (Health, money, and love).
In Brazil, people say, “Saude” (Health), but older people say, “Deus te ajude” (God help you). In Yugoslavia it’s, “Na zdravlije” (For your health). Of course, you would politely respond, “Hvala,” or “Thank you!” In Muslim countries, “Alhamdulillah!” (Thank God for keeping you safe and alive after the sneeze!) is a typical exclamation. In Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, you might hear “Prostit!” This means “May it benefit you.”
How about in Japan? Well, if you sneeze there, you would be greeted with silence and could hear a pin drop. That’s because in Japan it’s not polite to draw attention to sneezes.
As you can see, in many countries you may be wished a pleasantry if you happen to sneeze. Or maybe not.
ACHOO!! God bless you! And God bless Saint Gregory the Great! Here’s a tissue.
By Gail Marie Kemether