From Iceland — How To Kill A Sailor: Light A Cigarette With A Candle

How To Kill A Sailor: Light A Cigarette With A Candle

Published June 21, 2019

How To Kill A Sailor: Light A Cigarette With A Candle
Andie Sophia Fontaine
Photo by
Art Bicnick

You’re out clubbing. You step outside to the smoking area to get a much-needed dose of nicotine, but sadly, you’ve misplaced your lighter. Not to worry: the staff have helpfully lit a number of large candles all over the area, so all you need do is use one of those to get a light, right?

WRONG. Perhaps you haven’t heard, but lighting a cigarette with a candle kills sailors. And that is very rude.

In a fishing nation like Iceland, superstitions about the sea and sailors are very common. This particular superstition is probably not Icelandic in origin, but that doesn’t make it any less meaningful to Icelanders today.

Why candles though?

You can actually find this superstition across Northern and Eastern Europe, with it being especially prevalent in seaside towns. It is understandable, then, that those communities would want to protect their sailors, but what do candles have to do with it?

According to numerous sources, this superstition goes back to the days before unemployment insurance, when seasonal workers would have to find some way to make a living in the off-season. A reportedly popular way for sailors to make money was selling matches. Ergo, if you use a candle to light a cigarette, you’re effectively taking money away from sailors and slowly starving them to death.

Stealin’ er jurrrrrrrrbs!

The interesting thing about this superstition is its lack of any spiritual or supernatural basis. Instead, it’s like the 18th century version of the “automated checkout vs cashiers” debate today: your choice of convenience steals jobs, and you should be ashamed of yourself.

This superstition is hardly applicable today, as butane lighters are cheap, and the sailors in Iceland work year round, eschewing the need to peddle matches. None of that matters. Lighting a cigarette with a candle in Iceland is considered rude, and respecting local cultural norms is an important part of being a good tourist.

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